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Statehood in Times of Climate Change

Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the Concept of States


Frederick von Paepcke

Climate change is a most complex, global challenge for the international community and for international law. The tremendous negotiation efforts in the last decades did not result in effective mitigation measures, leading to a rising need for adaptation. Amidst a myriad of challenges, some small island states face an existential threat of losing their state territory due to sea level rise, a situation without precedence. What happens to their statehood when they lose a constituent criterion of a state? This thesis argues for a claim to a new state territory. Due to the existence of such a claim, island states continue to exist even when their territory is inundated, as the lack of a territory is not necessarily permanent.
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§ 6. Summary and Conclusions


As mentioned at the outset, endangered states find themselves amid a myriad of challenges posed by global warming. Their ability to exert influence on the international level, furthermore, is limited. Most other states do not share the interest in developing concepts for the future of these states that stand to lose their territory. The reason is that accepting any liability for climate change risks opening a “Pandora’s box”: Once such liability is conceded, a hardly controllable domino effect could be triggered that could lead to immeasurable financial risks, especially for industrialised states.

While this thesis has aimed to assess from a legal perspective the situation that endangered states face, it also had to take into account the political scope for at least three reasons. First, state practice is based to a considerable degree on political interests. Second, political interests – especially of more powerful states – limit, to a certain extent, the potential for the medium term development of international law. Third, as in almost any case in international law, there is more than one opinion on how to interpret a certain norm, treaty, principle, or the like, meaning that states will always tend to assent to a view serving their respective interest. Their countries’ short-term interests will in this context often be of greater importance for political leaders than a long-term interest exceeding a time span in which they themselves can reap the fruits of their labours.

This thesis has aimed to outline a solution for the...

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