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Sinking States

Katrina Miriam Wyman

November 2011, English

In this paper, Katrina Miriam Wyman addresses a novel property problem stemming from climate change: the submergence of low-lying lands because of sea-level rise and the resultant damage to property rights and state sovereignty. Low-lying Pacific island nations, such as the Maldives, are already in the process of being submerged. Wyman notes that President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives has created a sovereign wealth fund to purchase new territory on which to resettle all 300,000 Maldivians, but she raises a profound question of international law: what if, instead of buying new land, the citizens of the Maldives and other submerged states claimed a legal right to resettle elsewhere? She assesses historical precedents and jurisprudential and moral arguments (by the likes of Kant, Pufendorf, and Grotius) that support such a claim of right to property in another sovereign territory.

She also examines how such a right might be operationalized. The main historical precedent Wyman discusses is the right to safe haven, which is rooted in the age of discovery. That precedent is further supported by moral arguments from utilitarianism or a “cosmopolitan variant of liberal egalitarianism.” An independent, non-moral ground for the right may also stem from natural law arguments about collective ownership of the earth (Risse 2009). Even if such a right is supported and recognized, however, questions of implementation remain.

To implement a right of relocation, Wyman first considers and rejects two simple principles for allocating duties to countries for resettling persons displaced by climate change: (1) the proportion of their historical contribution to the existing stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; and (2) availability of resources. Instead, Wyman proffers an allocation mechanism based on the average of three metrics: (1) population density (countries with lower population densities would have more responsibility to take climate refugees); (2) 2005 gross domestic product (GDP); and (3) 2005 GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity.

This paper was presented at the Lincoln Institute’s conference entitled “Evolution of Property Rights Related to Land and Natural Resources” in 2010 and is Chapter 15 of the book Property in Land and Other Resources, edited by Daniel H. Cole and Elinor Ostrom.