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Regional News

Major climate change meeting at Columbia University this month

MAJURO —What happens to the sovereign rights of low-lying island nations if they disappear under the onslaught of rising sea levels? That is one in a series of legal questions that will be debated at a climate change conference in New York City later this month.

More than 200 climate change experts are expected to attend a joint Marshall Islands-Columbia University conference, “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate,” from May 23-25.

Marshall Islands United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller said the conference will consider possible solutions to the long-term risks posed by rising sea levels.

“Some scholars are proposing lawsuits, and others are looking at new treaties or resolutions to preserve political boundaries or address possible migration issues,” he said.

For the Marshall Islands and many of its small island neighbors in the western Pacific, these are critical concerns. This atoll nation has few points that rise more than a meter above sea level. Long-term sea level monitoring shows ocean levels are slowly rising, a fact exacerbating peak high tides in January and February, when sea water flooded islands throughout the country.

Underlining the country’s worry, Marshall Islands President Jurelang Zedkaia will deliver a keynote address to the Columbia University conference.

Muller said the conference is not about the ongoing climate negotiations.

“Instead we are trying to get some new thinking on how to address the long-term threats to the Marshall Islands’ security,” Muller said.

The Marshall Islands-Columbia University-sponsored conference will address some of the complicated, long-term risks by outlining new thinking to address the legal risks, as well as to showcase some potential “design options” for long-term adaptation and energy conservation.

“If we start now on a stronger path to adapting to climate impacts — protecting our shores and our water supplies — and further global emissions cuts, then these risks are sharply reduced,” Muller said. “So immediate action is our top priority.”

A key issue for the conference to take up is “what happens if we fail, or if impacts are at the upper end of predictions?” Muller said. “We cannot hide any longer from these difficult questions, even if they ultimately take years to solve.”