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The politics of sunken republics

Pacific Reflections By Gabriel McCoard

I was a hardcore environmentalist when I started college. I’ve since become more pragmatic. I view environmentalism as the web of interaction between humans and their surroundings.

A text in one college class proposed the term “ecoholism” as a substitute for “environmentalism.” Despite the dreadfulness of the word —I think it sounds like a mental illness— it makes more sense; your environment is, after all, everything in your environs, and ecoholism embraces natural systems. In the perpetual battle of semantics, “ecoholist” has lost out to “environmentalist,” but I’ll leave the semantics to others, such as the “content-free encyclopedia” Uncyclopedia.

One thing that I do recall from that era of my life, besides a sarcastic professorial proclamation of “we’re all environmentalists after an oil spill,” was that the environmental movement emboldened grassroots action.

In other words, normal people could impact— successfully—far-reaching, longstanding policy on environmental issues that they likely could not for, say, U.S pressure on foreign central bank fiscal policies. It is common to see teenage activists at global environmental conferences, as participants, not spectators.

At the same time, environmental challenges can be subtle, like tracking the carbon footprint of a product’s lifecycle, or determining if biofuels help or harm the planet.

The pragmatist in me, however, needs to point out some realities in environmental politics.


First up is American legislative politics. Republicans will make significant gains in this year’s mid-term congressional elections. This is normal; the president’s party loses seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate when he’s not running. It’s the closest thing American federal politics has to a referendum on the president. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, like if the economy is booming, or during a national crisis.

There is no reason to believe that in 2022.

And American Republicans are to the right of other conservative and right-of-center governments on climate change and the environment.

Which brings us back to coal company owner-turned-conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia. The current Democratic power broker describes himself as “all of the above” on energy options. Despite his recent hostility to climate change proposals, he has indicated that he can support climate legislation so long as that legislation reduces the federal budget deficit.

It’s not far-fetched to say that carbon has friends in American government and will likely get more.

Presidents can do certain things. They can emphasize policies and use executive orders to organize how the federal government will use its resources. But it is up to Congress to make law. That is literally its job. Any new law, or international agreement with the force of law, also known as a treaty, must go through the U.S. Senate, and not just pass, but pass with 66 percent of senators voting for it.

Which means fundamental environmental legislation will be dead in the water. Which brings us to water.

In August, the Pacific Islands Forum passed the Declaration of Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea-Level Rise. Essentially, this creates a permanent addendum to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Under UNCLOS, coastal states can claim a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from the low water mark “baseline,” giving them the right to exploit the resources both in the water and the seabed, with extended rights to seabed resources if certain undersea structures exist. These nations have stated that they will not adjust their baselines, or any measure of territory, even if sea levels rise and their citizens flee.

In other words, these nations swear to remain a nation even if they no longer have land.

It goes without saying that for many small island developing states, or as I continue to call them, “big ocean developing states,” the EEZ dwarfs the landmass. Many island state EEZs are the largest in the world, full of lucrative tuna and undersea minerals.

UNCLOS is a strange creature, and the Forum is both relying on and challenging the Law of the Sea.

Would international law in the form of UNCLOS recognize submerged territory? As the Library of Congress’ Global Legal Monitor stated, “article 121, paragraph 3 of UNCLOS provides that ‘rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.’”

In other words, a place where a human cannot live might not be something that a displaced nation, or anyone for that matter, can lay claim to. It would become “high seas” under UNCLOS, even if those seas are shallow.

Speaking of displacement, how would citizens of a submerged republic exercise this sovereignty they have kept? Would they continue to be a nation if the entire population emigrated? Suppose the country that accepted them decided to annex whatever maritime claims that nation held, such as a legislative quid pro quo? As in, your people can come here, but we get your sea. Suppose further that the accepting nation has a powerful navy.

I applaud Pacific islands for making this move. We’ll see if other regions, such as the Caribbean, make similar moves. While I am a pragmatist and a realist, I hope that concerted action will leave such questions as questions not in need of an answer.

Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to

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