So, some in these countries (in addition to screaming loudly about global warming) are trying to imagine what their country would be like in such a scenario. One leader bought about eight square miles in another island country to move a bunch of his people. Others are looking to former colonial masters for a right of refuge. Such migrations would be wrenching to both individuals and cultures.
But, what happens to the country? If Tuvalu’s islands sink, is there a country anymore? Under international law, a country’s right to control a large chunk of ocean adjacent to its territory (the “exclusive economic zone”) presumes that there is some land to be adjacent to, …. hmmm. What about the government? During WWII the Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, and French (among others) established a “government-in-exile” (usually in London) to hold the flag up until the Nazis could be defeated. That was fine for a five-year gig, but anyone care about the government of Kiribati if half the Kiribati’s were living in New Zealand, the rest scattered and no hope of returning for centuries?
In the sci-fi environmental disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow,” the US (and much of the northern hemisphere) is buried under massive glaciation and the US government sets up (more-or-less) permanently in Mexico. Somewhere between these scenarios, it’s feasible to see millions of climate refugees moving across borders on a (more-or-less) permanent basis.
From my politico-legal-historical perspective, this raises two sets of questions: First, will this require some change to international law to set standards for the treatment of minorities/migrants who would be arriving in unheard of numbers. Second, to whom would those individuals (former) citizens of Bangladesh or Costa Rica or Ethiopia or Norway look for their government? The flip side of which is whether other continuing governments would recognize a “permanent” government in exile with no territory?
The history of international law is replete with instances (mostly from the 19 and early 20C) of efforts to secure formal legal structures for minorities within the legal systems of their ‘historical’ countries. European powers leaned on China, Turkey, and several Latin American countries to secure these rights as part of their informal empires. In the aftermath of WWI, with a host of new boundaries crating large chunks of “alien minorities on the “wrong side,” extensive provisions were made to protect, e.g. Magyars in Rumania or Germans in Poland. So, the precedents exist, but they’re not auspicious. The first the product of imperial coercion, the latter fell apart as the League of Nations’ system collapsed in the 1930s. But, human rights thinking has become more firmly established since then, so there will certainly be a push for some organized standards of treatment.
The question of the continuation of countries (and governments) raises a different set of problems. The modern system of states (since the 17C Peace of Westphalia) has been premised on territorial control. You can’t be a country without some land; land which you control exclusively. Historically, this led to the development of much more detailed thinking about and enforcement of boundaries which previously had been kind of squishy (in the SW Alps, one couldn’t be quite sure if you were in Italy or France). By the 20C, with much more thinking in terms of clearly defined and cartographically demarked national jurisdictions, we only expect border controls (customs and immigration).
States have become increasingly jealous of their status and quite wary of the risks of relaxing the standards of being a state, lest the Catalans (or Scots or Tigrayans or Texans) try to split off. They’re not likely to be too accommodating of an idea that you can have a country without land and they’re quite sure that they’re not giving up any of theirs.
The Pacific Island countries that are most at risk range from small to tiny by any measure, so they’re not likely to be able to swing very much weight in getting the big rich countries let them continue. Even if Australia were of a mind to give 100 square miles of land to Tonga, it’s not clear how “independent” the Tongans would then be. Moreover, since there is likely to be aboriginal claims to such a chunk of land, Australia wouldn’t want to forcibly oust any current residents/claimants; lest they re-create the Palestinian problem in the Outback.
A set of re-glaciated Scandinavian countries would have a better chance, given their wealth, European links (and whiteness). They’re not likely to get any land since Europe is already pretty crowded. Still, one can imagine a “virtual Sweden” housed in an office complex somewhere in Berlin. With electronic connections and cultural outreach, perhaps they could preserve a sense of nationhood while sponsoring visits to the “homeland” now buried under a mile of ice? Would the Swedish diaspora continue without a “real” home and critical mass of community or would the last real remnant just be a set of “embassies” housed in each Ikea store around the world?
The internet/telecommunications revolution has empowered all sorts of communities, creating new institutions and ways people interact and feel connected. The nation-state model of global organization that has dominated the world for the past several hundred years is feeling pressure from many directions, as I have discussed previously. Perhaps the plight of Tongans or Maldivians will spur new modes of thinking along this vector, as climate change is certainly pushing us to rethink so many other aspects of how we live.