Global warming could create “ghost states” with governments in exile ruling over scattered citizens and land that has been abandoned to rising seas.
Francois Gemenne, of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris, said on Tuesday the likely loss of small island states such as Tuvalu and the Maldives raised profound questions over nationality and territory.
“What would happen if a state was to physically disappear but people want to keep their nationalities? It could continue as a virtual state even though it is a rock under the ocean and its people no longer live on that piece of land,” he said.
Gemenne said there was more at stake than cultural and sentimental attachment to swamped countries. Tuvalu makes millions of dollars each year from the sale of its assigned internet suffix .tv to TV companies.
“As independent nations they receive certain rights and privileges that they will not want to lose. Instead they could become like ghost states,” he said. “This is a pressing issue for small island states, but in the case of physical disappearance there is a void in international law.”
Experts say it is a matter of time before global warming drives up sea levels the 1m or 2m it would take to force permanent evacuation of islands such as Tuvalu, the highest point of which is 4m above water. Gemenne was speaking during a conference at Oxford University to discuss the implications of a catastrophic 4°C rise in global temperature, which many scientists fear will occur.
He said rich countries such as Britain had a responsibility to help people flee the worst impacts of rising temperatures.
“Industrialized countries have a duty to provide adaptation funding to make sure the costs of migration do not have to be met by the countries where the migration will happen,” Gemmene said.
Such migrants should not be considered “resourceless victims” and financial assistance needed to go beyond basic humanitarian aid and pay for infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Up to 1 billion people could eventually be made to move because of climate change.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that many world leaders have expressed support for a proposal that would earmark US$100 billion a year for the next decade for concrete actions to curb greenhouse gases and help countries cope with the impact of climate change.
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