Climate Migration & Self-Determination

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Autumn Skye Bordner is a Research Fellow at the Center for Law, Energy, & Environment at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law.

As the planet continues to warm, climate-induced migration is poised to become a global crisis. For the most vulnerable geographies—most prominently, low-lying island states—climate migration poses an immediate and existential threat. Without substantial adaptation, the lowest-lying island states are predicted to be uninhabitable by mid-century, necessitating wholesale migration and jeopardizing cultural identity, independence, and sovereignty.

Vulnerability to climate change is fundamentally shaped not only by environmental conditions, but by pre-existing social and political realities. Throughout Oceania, colonial legacies have induced climate vulnerability and impede effective adaptation. Colonial histories have left most Pacific Island states without the resources and capacity to pursue the type of intensive adaptation that could enable their survival. Meanwhile, dominant narratives portray the loss of islands to rising seas as a foregone conclusion and climate migration as inevitable, further foreclosing possibilities for adaptation. This accepted loss of whole nations represents a continuing strand of colonial narratives that cast islands and their peoples as peripheral and, therefore, expendable.

Such colonial dynamics are no longer commensurate with modern commitments to equity, justice, and human rights. International law safeguards the ability of all peoples to exist and to maintain sovereignty and self-governance through the fundamental human right of self-determination. In repudiation of the structural injustices produced by colonialism, self-determination was first codified as a right vesting exclusively in colonized peoples and continues to carry special force with respect to decolonizing peoples today. Yet unless persistent colonial dynamics are challenged, climate migration threatens to permanently extinguish the self-determination of Oceanic states, reproducing and exacerbating past injustices. The fate of islands has global consequence. Currently on the frontlines of climate change, the situation in islands today foreshadows the future of other decolonizing geographies as climate impacts intensify.

This Article will suggest that decolonizing states can leverage colonial histories to protect their self-determination in light of climate change. Taking the Republic of the Marshall Islands—one of the island states most imminently threatened by climate change—as a case study, this Article will first share Marshallese perspectives demonstrating that migration is not an acceptable response to climate change. Next, this Article will advance a novel climate justice theory, connecting colonial conduct to the threat of climate migration to establish that international human rights and decolonization norms vest colonial powers with moral and legal obligations to assist their former colonies with self-determination-preserving adaptation strategies. Finally, this Article will concretize this theory, suggesting specific legal strategies that Marshallese and similarly situated communities might pursue.

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