Pacific island states are looking at legal options to ensure their borders are protected as sea levels rise and land comes under threat due to climate change.
While scientists have been vocal about the threat to humanity from climate change, the Cook Islands government is increasingly voicing its alarm over potentially devastating economic consequences.
The Cook Islands currently possesses nearly two million square kilometres of territory in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Of that, only 600 square kilometres is dry land.
The economic value of this territory is significant, as it includes lucrative tuna fishing grounds long used as a local food source and coveted by distant water fishing nations.
The nation’s boundaries are set through an international treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLCOS).
Through the treaty, Cook Islands is entitled to an EEZ of 200 nautical miles from a specific land marker – for example, the low tide mark on a reef.
But with rising sea levels, some of these markers are at risk of becoming permanently submerged and lost to the rising ocean.
Pacific island states are now looking at legal options to ensure their boundaries cannot be challenged as a result of territory loss stemming from climate change.
Josh Mitchell, Director of the United Nations and Treaties Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration said: “The implications for the Cook Islands are significant.”
Last month, Mitchell took part in a regional teleconference with Pacific government counterparts, scientists and technical experts to explore legal options to ensure the integrity of their maritime zones.
“If you consider climate change, global warming, and sea level rise to be real, then you must consider that risk is real too. I don’t think there is a debate about that anymore,” he said.
“The worst case scenario is that you lose an island completely, and the perceived risk is that you lose the maritime boundary that is generated by that land mass.”
Most of the islands comprising the Southern Group are raised atolls or volcanic islands, but the Northern Group islands are all low-lying atolls.
While all islands are at risk from rising sea levels, the threat is pronounced among the atolls in the north where the maximum elevation averages between 4-5 metres above sea level.
“Over half of our island group are low-lying atolls, and all of those islands are at significant risk,” Mitchell said.
Last month’s regional teleconference follows a February 2019 meeting in Sydney – also attended by Mitchell – where island government officials and maritime legal experts first began discussing climate change and how it threatens maritime boundaries.
It’s a complex process that will require international legal expertise, Mitchell said. Despite the challenges, he said he believes a solution is possible.
“When the law of the sea was concluded, sea level rise wasn’t an issue, it wasn’t on the horizon and it wasn’t considered, so establishing boundaries and coastlines was considered to be static,” he said.
“Collectively, all countries want to preserve their maritime zones. Many countries stand to lose from disappearing coastline or a disappearing island.”
Along with Mitchell participating in the teleconference were Director of Pacific and Regional Affairs Jim Gosselin, Chargé d’Affaires Jim Armistead from the Cook Islands High Commission in Fiji, and climate change advisor Isaac Glassie Ryan from the Office of the Prime Minister.