During a recent presentation at Yale Law School, Maxine Burkett noted that her scholarship often focuses “on the edge of what is possible.” Professor Burkett, Associate Professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii, and the former director of the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy (ICAP), visited campus Friday, October 18, as part of the fall speaker series From Mitigation to Adaptation: Regional Responses to Climate Change speaker series, co-hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. Her scholarship tackles a problem that indeed seems unimaginable, but increasingly threatens island and coastal communities across the world: how states might continue to exist, even after climate change has made their physical territories uninhabitable.
For island and coastal nations, rising sea levels pose an urgent threat. Saltwater intrusion can damage water supplies, and ruin soil’s ability to support agriculture. More frequent and intense storms can damage infrastructure, and accelerate coastal erosion, a phenomenon creating tough decisions for coastal Alaskan communities. For island nations, such as Tuvalu, the threat is so complete that it is difficult to truly comprehend; rising sea levels are likely to completely flood low-lying countries, creating scores of climate refugees.
The toll of climate change on communities is already heavy, though the many people do not always recognize the link between migration and global warming. Professor Burkett noted that in the continental United States – an area that might not seem to be at risk for climate-change-driven migration – Hurricane Katrina temporarily or permanently displaced 1.1 million people from communities in Louisiana and Mississippi. In addition to the impact of extreme weather events, like hurricanes, a more subtle and long-term exodus is also underway. Many residents of Pacific islands have begun what Professor Burkett terms a “slow-moving migration,” leaving now in anticipation of the future threat of rising seas. This process threatens to create “empty states,” by draining communities of skills and tax revenue even before the full physical impacts of climate change hit.
This migration poses challenges that existing legal tools cannot easily meet. As a closely watched court case in New Zealand demonstrates, human rights laws do not account or make provisions for victims of climate change. In New Zealand, as in most states, the “legal concept of a refugee is someone who is being persecuted, which requires human interaction.” Climate change, which depends on so many different decisions and decisionmakers, is difficult to fit into this framework, despite the clear threat it poses to the future of vulnerable communities. Additionally, in countries like the United States, the political difficulty of accepting the presence of global warming may prevent conversations about climate refugees.
Professor Burkett argues that the unique threat climate change poses to vulnerable communities – and the current legal system’s inability to tackle it – requires a radical rethinking of the definition of a nation. The current legal framework for a state requires a permanent population, defined territory, functioning government, and capacity to enter into relations with other states. Professor Burkett envisions a new type of “ex-situ state” that could operate without a physical territory. These nations would use virtual networks to maintain a sense of culture and identity among a citizenry spread across the globe. They would also act as important intermediaries and advocates for citizens who have immigrated to – but not yet received full citizenship in – other countries. Her proposal draws on current alternative models of the state, such as the Tibetan Government-in-exile; the Sovereign Order of Malta, which operates out of Rome after losing access to its island territory; dual citizenship models; and the networks that link post-colonial diaspora populations to their home countries.
Professor Burkett’s talk highlights the environmental injustice inherent in climate change; a major brunt of its impacts will be born by island nations with tiny carbon footprints. While adaptation strategies often call to mind engineering or urban planning initiatives, climate change also has the potential to radically alter political framework and boundaries. Professor Burkett’s work eloquently illustrates the need to more fully plan for the human and sociopolitical impacts of climate change, and the moral imperative to invest in mitigation strategies, to make such drastic measures less necessary.
Amy Weinfurter is a first-year Masters of Environmental Management (MEM '15) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, focusing on the intersection between environmental communication and policy. Before arriving at Yale, she studied English and environmental science at Colby College, and worked with non-profit organizations in Colorado and Washington, D.C., on communication, watershed management, and community outreach and engagement initiatives.