Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate

Event Date: 
May 23, 2011 to May 25, 2011

Columbia Law School Conference to Address Legal Options for Island Nations Threatened by Rising Seas

As Climate Change Imperils the Existence of Some Countries, Legal Experts to Look at Preserving Sovereignty, Migration, and Fishing Rights

Public Affairs, 212-854-2650

New York, May 9, 2011—Rising sea levels caused by climate change imperil the future of many small, low-lying island nations, which could be at risk of one day disappearing into the ocean. The legal implications for those nations will, for the first time, be examined at an international academic conference at Columbia Law School from May 23-25, sponsored by the Law School’s Center for Climate Change and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The republic’s president, Jurelang Zedkaia, is slated to be the keynote speaker at a dinner on May 24. Conferees slated to attend, including many from vulnerable regions, include lawyers, government leaders, scientists, and academics. “The consensus is that the Marshall Islands and other low-lying nations could become uninhabitable in a matter of decades,” said Michael Gerrard, Director of the Center for Climate Change Law and the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice.

Last year, the Marshall Islands reached out to Gerrard, the former head of the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy and Resources, about how to grapple with these issues. As the specter of this problem becomes more pronounced, there is virtually no legal precedent for how to deal with such a situation under international law. The conference will examine some of the legal options.

Among the issues to be discussed:

  • Preservation of marine rights and defining resources and borders when a nation disappears.
  • Resettlement and migration as a new refugee population is created and whether larger countries can be obligated to take in displaced persons.
  • Whether a nation can preserve its statehood and sovereignty if it physically ceases to exist.
  • Who pays for these enormous undertakings?
  • How nations can adapt to rising sea levels and prolong the habitability of affected islands.

A 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that sea levels would rise an average of five millimeters per year this century, although the rise is expected to be higher in parts of the Pacific.

Some island nations are particularly vulnerable as most of their land lies at most only a few feet above sea level.

The 43-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) put out a declaration last year that said “climate change poses the most serious threat to our survival and viability, and…it undermines our efforts to achieve sustainable development goals and threatens our very existence.”

All panel discussions will be held at Columbia Law School, 435 West 116th St., New York. For more information about the conference and to register, visit

A live webcast of all sessions from the conference will be available on that page. Discussions on Twitter can be followed with the #risingseas hash tag.

The conference is funded, in part, by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and the World Bank.

Event Details
Contact Name: 
Steven Gosset
Contact Email:
Columbia Law School
Columbia Law School
435 West 116th Street
New York, New York 10027
435 West 116th Street
Phone Number: 
(212) 854-2650
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