The Climate Diaspora: Indo-Pacific Emigration from Small Island Developing States

103 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2011

See all articles by Evan Litwin

Evan Litwin

University of Massachusetts Boston

Date Written: May 1, 2011


The complex interactions between population growth, environment, and anthropogenic climate change are contributing to regional vulnerability and instability. This is particularly pronounced in the Indo-Pacific region where many island nations, or Small Island Developing States (SIDS), face rising seas and changing weather patterns that pose a severe threat to both their physical and functional existences.

Section 1 provides a general layout of the major arguments made throughout the paper as they relate to the aforementioned dynamic. Section 2 explores some of the geographic and ecological vulnerabilities that low-lying island and atoll states have as well as a variety of scientific research indicating that sea level is both rising and is rising to varying degrees around the world. It further examines the contributions that melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica could make with regards to rising sea levels. It also discusses the numerous relationships between economics and environment, termed environomics, by particularly looking at the economic impacts of sea level rise and increased storm intensity on SIDS.

Increased emigration channels from SIDS would not only alleviate strains on the ecosystem and socio-economic environment, but may become the only opportunity for survival in the event of ecosystem collapse or sea level inundation. Section 3 introduces the concept of environmentally motivated migration as well as the new, yet not legally recognized, definition of an environmental refugee.

Section 4 takes a closer look at human interactions in the Indo-Pacific and how the human-environment relationship contributes to violent conflict, migration, and both regional instability and weak governance. Section 5 takes this case a step further and explores a variety of international conventions and frameworks that can be drawn upon for assistance in designing a justice-driven mechanism for addressing the needs of environmental migrants. Section 6 looks at current Indo-Pacific emigration schemes that allow for immigration into New Zealand and Australia from SIDS and, along with the previous section, argues that existing systems are inadequate and that appropriate international response has been limited. Therefore, SIDS governments should work cooperatively with regional partners to secure binding regional and bilateral agreements that would expand emigration opportunities for SIDS citizens. Section 6 offers further discourse on the political hurdles of achieving that goal.

Section 7 examines the unique possibility of climate-induced statelessness as a result of the either the physical loss of territory to sea level rise or forced abandonment due to ecosystem collapse. It particularly looks at the sovereign rights of SIDS within the Westphalian system and how to retain or redesign those rights in a worst-case climate scenario. Furthermore, Indo-Pacific SIDS exercise sovereign control over 20 million km² of maritime territory and any natural resources that fall within it. This section argues that freezing the current maritime boundaries of nations and their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) could potentially avoid escalated regional or global conflict over maritime space, fisheries, sea mineral deposits, and other renewable and nonrenewable natural resources. Freezing the maritime boundaries under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) could also provide SIDS communities significant economic aid through rental of extraction rights, which would allow them to both construct and maintain climate adaptation engineering projects as well as in community relocation and resettlement.

Section 8 summarizes the main arguments and offers policy recommendations that domestic governments, regional alliance organizations, and international governance bodies could explore as solutions to some of the most pressing matters facing SIDS who must prepare for an uncertain future. Despite the existence of nations and borders, it positions migration as an ancient and effective tool for climate adaptation rather than as representative of a failure to adapt. The world must prepare for a very different world than what currently exists and future emigration from SIDS is likely to be one of the most extreme universal challenges of the coming century.

Keywords: SIDS, Pacific, climate change, oceania, islands, atolls, environment, sea level rise, immigration, environmental migration, climate migration, emigration, conflict, environmental conflict, resource conflict, sovereignty, climate refugees, refugees, rare earth metals, small island developing states

Suggested Citation

Litwin, Evan, The Climate Diaspora: Indo-Pacific Emigration from Small Island Developing States (May 1, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Evan Litwin (Contact Author)

University of Massachusetts Boston ( email )

100 Morrissey Blvd
Boston, MA 02125
United States

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