The gradual albeit rapid heating of the earth’s atmosphere has brought about
immense adverse effects on the environment, including the melting of the
icecaps, shifting precipitation patterns, ocean acidification, habitat
destruction, loss of ecosystem and, the consequent migration of both man and
animals. The melting of glaciers and sea ice has led to an increase in the
volume of ocean water. The thawing of these ice masses has been recently raising
about a panic. When reminding ourselves of the fact that about 70 per cent of
the earth is water, this permutation proves to be quite a worrisome bargain.
Factors Contributing To The Rise Of Sea Level
Primarily, the increase in the sea volume can be linked to two factors[i], all
induced by the ongoing global climate change:
Thermal expansion: This refers to the expansion of the seawater due to the rise
in its temperature. About half of the sea-level rise over the past many years is
attributable to warmer oceans simply occupying more space.
Melting glaciers and vast area of ice sheets: The alpine glaciers naturally melt
slightly each summer. During the winter, evaporation creates sufficient snow,
primarily from the seawater, to balance out the melting. However, recent higher
temperatures caused by global warming have persistently led to gross summer
melting as well as below par snowfall due to climate change. This creates an
imbalance causing sea levels to rise.
Same as the mountain glaciers, the increased heat is causing the massive ice
sheets that cover Greenland and Antarctica to melt more quickly. While melting
in West Antarctica has drawn considerable attention from scientists, especially
after the break in the Larsen C ice shelf in 2017,[ii] at the same time glaciers
in East Antarctica are showing poor signs of destabilizing.[iii]
Impacts Of Rising Sea Level
The rising sea level has been majorly affecting the islands, both natural and
artificial, and the low-lying States most of which belong to the least developed
(LDC) category. Every year, the ocean level rises by another 0.13 inches (3.2
mm).[iv] This brings about major implications for inland terrain. For example,
soil erosion and salination in these regions are capable of rendering the area
uninhabitable and thus, have already begun to cause displacement or migration.
The migration and the related human rights concerns have been addressed by the
International Law Association’s Committee on International Law and Sea Level
Rise at its 78th Conference[v] while adopting the Sydney Declaration[vi] prepared
by the Committee.
Regional effects such as floods have already been a harbinger of heavy losses to
life and property. A special report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change [vii] concluded that by 2100 the oceans may be expected to rise
and "could reach around 30 cm (12 in) to 60 cm (24 in) by 2100 even if
greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming is limited to
well below 2°C, but around 60 cm (24 in) to 110 cm (43 in) if emissions continue
to increase strongly.” This may result in huge losses for coastal and island
States, especially the poorer countries who cannot afford the required defences
when life and infrastructural damage becomes unavoidable for them.
The impairment of the polar, beach and coral ecosystems has already led to a
gross reduction of some of the most unique species of flora and fauna while the
extinction of others. The sea-level rise can cause significant habitat loss with
severe consequences for the region’s unique biota, particularly the polar
wildlife, birds and freshwater organisms.
Implications In International Law
The increasing ocean level is not just an environmental concern but also affects
international laws. Baselines Committee of the ILA was the first to have ever
addressed the question of sea level and its implications on international
law.[viii] In May 2019, the UN International Law Commission decided to include
the topic of ‘Sea-level in relation to international law’ in its programme of
work, to address this matter within the scope of the ILC mandate. [ix]
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982 determines
the various maritime zones. With the increase in the mean sea level, the
baselines [x] of many coastal States have shifted. From this baseline, States
measure their territorial sea,[xi] contiguous zone,[xii] exclusive economic zone
(EEZ)[xiii] and continental shelf. [xiv] These States have always been at odds
with each other over their sea rights and this reduction in the State boundaries
will further lead to an uncertainty of the State’s maritime zones which is
essential for maintaining the jurisdiction with respect to other States and in
turn, international peace.
Further, the treaties and agreements entered into by certain States before this
epoch event while delimiting their territorial boundaries (mainly, by applying
the equidistance principle) may become void sooner or later, leaving open the
question regarding the jurisdiction of all concerned parties. This can spur
future private international disputes without any solid framework in place to
elude from in such a situation.
Issues facing the loss of State territory or a complete loss of Statehood are
another major implication of the sea level rise leading to many more
adversities. Islands such as Perlamutrovy [xv]and Kiribati xvi] have already
succumbed to the sea. Apart from generating environmental migration they are
also responsible for massive humanitarian crises. Under the 1951 Refugee
Convention, climate-related migration does not confer the refugee status on the
displaced people.[xvii] Even with the Sydney declaration[xviii] international
law only recognizes political refugees. Hence, currently, there exists no legal
framework for “climate refugees.”
In consideration of all these changes, State practices at both national and
international front may also be influenced. Countries may be quick to alter
their existing laws or the creation of new ones as a strategy to acquire new
territorial rights due to the physical changes around the erstwhile borders.
This can be catastrophic for the entire international community.
The question of man’s accountability for change in the environment has been long
discussed and attempts have also been made to resolve the circumstances but we
are still far from the goal. Back in December 1989, the General Assembly in its
resolution [xix] deliberated on the possible adverse effects of sea-level rise on
islands and coastal areas, and urged the international community to provide
effective and timely support to Member States affected by sea-level rise,
particularly the developing and the LDC category States.
This was a marked step
to develop and implement strategies for such regimes to protect themselves and
their vulnerable natural ecosystems from the particular threats of sea-level
rise caused by climate change. Most recently, the 2015 Paris Agreement codified
international efforts around resiliency, adaptation and mitigation of climate
change. Other initiatives of the UN have also provided support to protect such
countries with necessary funding and support.
The importance of the rising sea level as an impact of climate change has been
getting global attention and has fortunately been regularly addressed at various
fora. The international laws for the protection of States and humanitarian
reasons need to undergo a structural change soon along with laying more emphasis
on its implementation in the days to come. The effects of the rising sea level
on international laws are inevitable. With this, international cooperation shall
perhaps, finally universalize.
- Vital signs facts for Sea level, NASA: Global Climate Change, available
- Douglas fox, The Larsen C Ice Shelf Collapse Is Just the
Beginning—Antarctica Is Melting, National Geographic Magazine, July 12,
2017, available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/07/antarctica-sea-level-rise-climate-change/.
- Leah Asmelash, This giant glacier in Antarctica is melting, and it could
raise sea levels by 5 feet, scientists say, CNN, March 25, 2020, available
- Christina Nunez, Sea level rise, explained, National Geographic, Feb 19,
2019, available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/sea-level-rise/.
See also, Supra at 1.
- Sydney Declaration of Principles on the Protection of Persons Displaced
in the Context of Sea Level Rise, ILA, Res. 6/2018, annex.
- Freestone et al. (2015). “International Law and Sea Level Rise: The New ILA
Committee,” 21 ILSA Journal of International law, 397-408.
- IPCC Press release, Choices made now are critical for the future of our
ocean and cryosphere, Sep 25, 2019, 2019/31/PR, available at https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/3/2019/09/SROCC_PressRelease_EN.pdf
- Baselines under the International Law of the Sea: Committee Report, ILA,
Report of the Seventy-Fifth Conference held in Sofia, 385–428.
- Report on the work of the Seventy-First Session (2019), International
Law Commission, A/74/10, Chap. III and X.
- Article 5, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982)
- Ibid, Article 3.
- Ibid, Article 33
- Ibid, Article 57.
- Ibid, Article 76(1).
- Atle Staalesen, “The Arctic Island that disappeared,” The Barents Observer,
Feb 22, 2019, available at https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2019/02/arctic-island-disappeared
- Brian Reed, “A Kiribati Village Slowly Succumbs To The Sea Around It,”
NPR Dec 1, 2010, available at https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2010/12/01/131708517/a-kiribati-village-slowly-succumbs-to-the-sea-around-it.
- Hioureas, Christina, 2017, Effects of the Rising Sea Level on Maritime
Boundaries, Foley Hoag LLP, 11.
- Supra at 5
- General Assembly—Fourty-Fourth Session, Possible adverse effects of
sea-level rise on islands and coastal areas, particularly low-lying coastal
areas, A/RES/44/206, available at https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/44/206.