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Searching for Pacific climate change solutions: Vikas Kumar discusses the impact of climate change on the future of the Pacific region's microstates.

The micro-island states of the Pacific region suffer from adverse geographical conditions and, in some cases, political instability. Their precarious sovereignty is contingent upon a benign international system that has so far assured them of aid and emergency support. But the looming climate crisis has completely altered the nature of their problems at a time when the international system is itself unstable. Unfortunately, these states do not have sufficient resources to deal with the challenges facing them, even as their ethno-linguistic heritage, bio-diversity and, in a few cases, even existence are endangered. In light of this, the never-ending climate change negotiations and the doubtful efficacy of belated implementation of adaptation/mitigation solutions necessitate exploration of other solutions to the existential crisis facing these microstates.

A state's capacity to deal with climate change depends among other things on its geographical conditions, economic development, and international relations. We can classify the microstates of the Pacific region in a number of ways, each relating to vulnerability to climate change or to the capacity to deal with it.

Size: The area of a state affects its capacity to withstand climate change risks on its own because it places constraints on resettlement within its territory. We will treat a state as a microstate if it has an area of less than 10,000 square kilometres and/or a population of less than a million. In this region, there is one large state (Australia), two medium-sized states (New Zealand and Papua New Guinea), a small state (Fiji), and ten microstates (Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu). Most of these microstates have much higher population densities than their larger neighbours.

Division and dispersion of landmass: A small state divided into numerous widely dispersed islands is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions. Depending on the division of landmass, these states can be classified as follows: a few large islands (Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea), a few small islands (Nauru, Palau, and Samoa) and archipelagic (the rest). We can also classify them in terms of the ratio of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to area, a measure of dispersion of landmass, as follows: 1-10 (Australia and Papua New Guinea), 11-100 (Fiji, New Zealand, Samoa, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu), 501-1000 (Tonga), 1001-5000 (Kiribati, Micronesia, Palau, and Tonga) and more than 5001 (Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Tuvalu).

Elevation: Given the rising sea level, a classification based on elevation (maximum) is crucial: 0-10 metres (Marshall Islands and Tuvalu), 11-100 metres (Kiribati and Nauru), 101-1000 metres (Micronesia and Palau) and more than 1001 metres (Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu). Note that Kiribati, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and Tonga include low-lying coral islands.

Economy: The overall size of an economy and per capita income limit the resources available to deal with crises. According to income, these states can be divided into three groups: Australia and New Zealand; Micronesia, Tonga, Marshall Islands and Palau; and the rest.

Ethnic composition: Ethno-linguistic divisions within a region limit international collective action to deal with shared problems. These states/dependencies can be divided into four broad ethnolinguistic groups: English-speaking European origin (Australia and New Zealand), Micronesian (Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau), Polynesian (Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands and Niue) and Melanesian (Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea). With 8.5 million people speaking about 15 per cent of all known languages, Melanesia is the world's most diverse region.

International relations: The nature of international relations affects a state's ability to seek help from other states in times of crisis. According to their international relations, these territories can be classified as follows: dependencies of a sovereign state (Cook Islands and Niue), sovereign states in free association with another state (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau), and the rest. These states can also be classified according to their international economic relations. The Micronesian states use the currencies of either Australia or the United States, whereas the Melanesian and Polynesian states have their own currencies.

Considerable overlap

There is considerable overlap between the above classifications. The 'English-European' states have the lowest population density and highest per capita income, while the bulk of their landmass is distributed among a few large islands. They are relatively invulnerable to climate change. The Melanesian states are divided among a few islands, whereas the Micronesian and Polynesian groups consist of either archipelagic or one/two island countries. Moreover, most Micronesian and Polynesian states (except Samoa) consist of at least a few coral islands. The Micronesian states have disproportionately large EEZs and very high population densities and are tied to larger neighbours through free associations and/or use of their currencies. With high population density, archipelagic states like Tuvalu (Polynesia) that consist of small, low-lying coral islands are particularly vulnerable to a rise in sea level and change in sea temperature.

The aforesaid differences notwithstanding, these microstates are alike insofar as their sovereignty is precarious. Location exposes them to seismic risks and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events adds to their woes. A rising sea level threatens to damage drinking water sources as well as arable land and submerge vital coastal infrastructure. Natural disasters often simultaneously affect a number of key sources of income. For instance, a major storm can damage tourism, fishing, and agriculture sectors. Furthermore, a number of these states have a small population spread over a very large area, which makes planning and administration difficult. For instance, Kiribati, the only country in all four hemispheres, has a population comparable to Andorra's spread over an area comparable to the European Union. Neighbouring Vanuatu's weak state has struggled to hold together one of the most diverse populations of the world, speaking about 110 languages and spread over more than 800,000 square kilometres.

Income sources

Agriculture, mining, fishing, tourism, international development aid and remittances have so far been the main sources of income in the region. Marine wealth is, however, vulnerable to climate change, while mineral wealth, particularly phosphate reserves, has been nearly exhausted. Interestingly, the EEZs of these states are at least 50 times larger than their landmass and are comparable to the EEZs of some of the largest countries; for example, Kiribati's EEZ is one and a half times the size of India's. Yet they are trapped in a low investment-income cycle by infrastructural bottlenecks, a shortage of skilled workers, remoteness from international markets and vulnerability to natural disasters. The resultant small tax bases push their governments to unusual sources of income, like sale of diplomatic recognition and immunity, national internet domain names, stamps and coins; lease of islands for military bases and asylum detention centres; and offshore money laundering. While half of these states belong to the United Nations' least developed countries category, none of the microstates in free association with the United States--Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau--falls in this category.

In light of the above, we can argue that the independent existence of these microstates depends on an international system that recognises the independence of small countries and provides them with aid and emergency support. But the current instability in the international system and the growing uncertainty caused by climate change make continued reliance on the existing system unreasonable, at least for the Pacific microstates, which may need to relocate parts or the whole of their populations in the foreseeable future.

Way forward

Free association arrangements between Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau and the United States provide the former with access to economic assistance, disaster management programmes and trust funds to smooth the stream of income in the foreseeable future. This potentially assures the microstates of necessary support to deal with climate change exigencies. New Zealand's dependencies like Cook Islands and Niue enjoy similar benefits. In the rest of the discussion we will examine options available to the hitherto absolutely sovereign microstates.

Legal Action against Polluters: This is not a reliable option for a number of reasons. First, the international legal process is extremely time-consuming and non-binding. Second, microstates have neither the financial resources nor the skilled manpower to pursue this option. Third, major polluting countries are unwilling to acknowledge their contribution to climate change, a prerequisite for apportioning liability. Fourth, even if timely compensation can be obtained, the funds might be insufficient to secure microstates against climate change. Fifth, it leaves unaddressed the problem of dealing with catastrophic events while litigation is in progress. Sixth, apportioning compensation among the microstates will be difficult because some of them might require total resettlement. Also, the problem of finding a suitable site for such resettlement remains unresolved.

Natural depopulation-. One of the easiest options is to allow gradual depopulation through usual economic out-migration, hoping no one is left on the ground before the doomsday predictions come true. This leaves the people at the mercy of other countries' willingness to absorb migrants. A number of other issues need attention.

First, even if timely depopulation is achieved, this approach will lead to later conflicts over the nearly abandoned territories. Until the issue of ownership was resolved, the policing of these islands and their enormous exclusive economic zones to prevent the entry of poachers and smugglers would suffer because of problems in achieving collective action problems among the major powers.

Second, the roadmap from economic migration to citizenship of another country will remain uncertain in the absence of changes in international and domestic immigration and refugee laws. But microstates have no means of influencing the pace or outcome of the evolution of international law and domestic legislation of other countries. Moreover, necessary legal reforms might have to wait until the conclusion of climate change negotiations.

Third, the problem of dealing with catastrophic events will remain unaddressed. Even a reformed refugee law will call for absorbing migrants without providing any guidelines to deal with the immediate fallout of catastrophic events that might trigger exodus. Finally, individual-level migration will unravel communities and adversely affect languages and cultures.

Resettlement option

Planned resettlement. While voluntary, unorganised migration of individuals/families is not a solution, planned resettlement of whole communities elsewhere on purchased land may not help much either. The settlers will have no voting rights in the destination country, while in the aftermath of a major catastrophe the home state will practically cease to function. So, the resettled population will remain citizens of a dysfunctional or non-existent state for an indefinite period. Also, it is not clear who will fund the resettlement and which country will accept settlers planning to form a de facto state.

Federation/free association: A political merger with another country to mitigate the disadvantage of small size avoids the shortcomings of the above solutions. There are three possibilities:

* a grand federation of microstates

* a federation between a number of microstates and a large state

* federations between individual microstates and large states.

A grand federation of microstates cannot address their existential crisis. Multilateral merger negotiations among similarly sized but ethnically different states could be very divisive and time-consuming because of haggling over power-sharing and symbols of the state, official language and location of the capital. One is reminded of the separation of the ethnically different Gilbert (Kiribati) and Ellice (Tuvalu) Islands in the 1970s. Also, any assortment of microstates will inherit the severe capacity constraints of individual microstates and will also be unable to pool risks because prospective constituents will face correlated risks.

In other words, federation is an answer to their problems only if microstates join a large state. Such a federation will benefit the microstates by mitigating domestic political and economic instability and relieving them of the burden of maintaining the paraphernalia of sovereignty. It will also allow access to a much larger labour market and cheaper and better quality public goods, including disaster management. Mergers would, in fact, obviate the need for desperate rescue operations by allowing phased, preventive relocation of vulnerable communities to safer locations within the federation. The microstates stand to gain if they bargain jointly. But, as mentioned earlier, multilateral negotiations are time-consuming. So, the second merger option is also ruled out. This leaves us with the third option involving bilateral mergers in the form of federation/free association.

Prospective partners

We can now identify the conditions a large state needs to satisfy to be a suitable federation/free association partner. A prospective partner should fulfil all the following criteria:

* Distance: It should be located close to the microstate.

* Geo-climatic: It should not be located in a geo-climatic region that is substantially different from that of the microstate.

* Risk: It should not be exposed to similar climatic risks as the microstate. Even if it is exposed to correlated/shared risks, it should be relatively invulnerable.

* Size: It should not be small in terms of area and economy.

* Income: It should have a relatively high per capita income.

* Experience: It should have experience in managing territories in the Pacific.

* Democracy: It should be a stable multi-party democracy.

* Institutions: It should be a common law jurisdiction and should have English as one of its main languages (as most microstates follow common law and use English as the first/ second language).

* Ethnicity: It should be a multi-ethnic/religious country.

* Constitution: It should have an identity-neutral constitution that protects the cultural, linguistic and land rights of minorities.

* Geo-politics: Its foray into the region should not evoke protest from other countries.

Australia and New Zealand, which together account for more than 70 per cent of the regions population, 90 per cent of its land and almost the entire economic output, are the only countries that fulfil all the above criteria. Merger negotiations will not be cumbersome because the people of the microstates need full citizenship rights (including the right to relocate in the worst case) and the rest will be taken care of by the constitutions and the administrations of Australia and New Zealand. But, why should Australia and New Zealand agree?

The larger federating/freely associating state will have to draw down population of islands through resettlement to sustainable levels. In the worst case scenario, even if the entire populations of the most vulnerable microstates (Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu) have to be relocated to, say, Australia, then the latter has to stop immigration from other parts of the world for about half a decade, assuming the current overall immigration rates to be sustainable. But even without a merger New Zealand, and to a lesser extent Australia, is already accepting migrants from the microstates under the recognised seasonal employer scheme, the Samoan quota and the Pacific access category. This also means that the people of microstates have experience of living in Australia and New Zealand as students and workers. In other words, even in the worst case the demographic impact of the proposed federations/free associations will be limited. Furthermore, Australia and New Zealand could legally limit immigration from other regions of the world to assure their existing citizens that climate change refugees will not overwhelm them.

No problems

The proposed federations/free associations are unlikely to cause adjustment problems. A number of these microstates use the Australian dollar and Australia and New Zealand are their most important trade and tourism partners. The combined GDP of the microstates is less than 1 per cent of the GDP of Australia (or 5 per cent of New Zealand's GDP). So, they are too small to significantly impact the economy of the larger partner in the federation/ free association. Australia and New Zealand can freely harness the marine resources of the microstates after merger and offset the costs of administering the microstates. Otherwise, even without merger, Australia and New Zealand have little choice but to intervene at their own expense because of the potential political unrest and economic instability that would ferment on their doorstep if they did nothing. In fact, they are already supporting Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu through international trust funds and have in the past intervened in politically fragile Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.

The distribution of microstates between Australia and New Zealand should be based on the preferences of the people of the concerned countries, the New Zealand navy's reach and New Zealand's demographic sustainability. Shared sovereignty over microstates is, however, undesirable as it could lead to collective action problems. Furthermore, the existing free associations (Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau), overseas territories (Pitcairn, Wallis and Futuna Islands) and unincorporated territories (Guam) of permanent UN Security Council members (France, the United Kingdom and the United States) should not be disturbed as the proposed solution will then fail to secure the assent of the UN Security Council. Moreover, that will open a pandora's box by adding a large number of territories to the problem set, which Australia and New Zealand might not be able to handle.

We can conclude that of all the available alternatives, federation with a large state is the most suitable solution to the existential problems facing the microstates of the Pacific. Only Australia and New Zealand satisfy the entire set of criteria that make a state eligible to federate/freely associate with these microstates. The proposed federations/free associations will resolve the microstates' existential crisis and raise their standard of living without causing any serious adjustment problems. Further, given that climate change negotiations are gridlocked and reliable long-term commitments from the international community to aid the microstates remain absent, the international community has a moral obligation to support the proposed federations/free associations as well as necessary caps on immigration.

The never-ending climate change negotiations and the doubtful efficacy of belated implementation of adaptation/mitigation solutions necessitate exploration of other solutions to the existential crisis facing the microstates of the Pacific region. We can think of at least five alternatives, namely: legal action against major polluting countries, natural depopulation, planned resettlement, a grand federation of microstates and federation/free association between one or more microstates and a larger state. Of these federation/free association with a larger state is the best alternative. Only Australia and New Zealand satisfy all the criteria that make a larger country a suitable federation/free association partner.


The sources of information about vital statistics of different countries include The World Factbook, Sea Around Us, and Ethnologue.

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India.
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Author:Kumar, Vikas
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8MARS
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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