Island Nations may sue U.S. over Climate Change

The recent tsunami claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused billions of dollars in damage. But even after the cleanup is complete, many island states face an even more fundamental problem—the possibility of sinking.

Tuvalu's 10,000 residents are living in the danger zone. This nine island chain in the Pacific just north of Fiji has a high point of only thirteen feet. Citizens claim the world's industrialized nations are slowly flooding their homeland thanks to unchecked pollution.

Tuvalu feels it should be compensated by offending nations. And this island nation has made a big splash by threatening lawsuits against the United States and Australia. These two industrial giants are notably absent signatures from the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto is a climate treaty that requires lower greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized nations. Countries that have signed it agree to abide by its terms.

Increases in fossil fuels and deforestation have led to higher levels of carbon dioxide. This gas hovers over the planet, trapping heat and raising temperatures. Icecaps and glaciers have started melting. More significantly, sea water expands when heated, raising ocean levels.

There was a 0.6¡C increase in the average global temperature in the 20th century. Sea level also rose 10 to 20 centimeters. Environmental scientists project that increases above 1¡C have dangerous consequences for survival.

Kyoto targets industrialized nations for a good reason. True, they only make up 20% of the world's population. But these countries account for 60% of annual carbon dioxide emissions. And the U.S. has a gold medal in world pollution. We're responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

President George W. Bush refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Bush defended his decision by arguing the treaty's conditions would be too expensive to adopt. Also, Bush charged that Kyoto unfairly excludes developing nations from restrictions. The Bush administration has stood by its stance - climate changes are due to natural shifts, not greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, such decisions aren't doing anything to help Tuvalu or islands like it. Tuvalu residents have noticed more than rising sea levels. Higher tides have sprayed sea salt on their crops. The salt destroys crops like rice, the very exports Tuvalu's fragile economy depends on.

If sea levels continue to rise at the current rate, the picture is bleak for Tuvalu. In fact, it's estimated Tuvalu could disappear in just fifty years. Residents have already started to relocate to New Zealand. This larger island nation has agreed to accept 75 Tuvaluans per year as "environmental refugees."

Another island state at risk is the tsunami-hit Republic of Maldives. They've already built a refuge in the form of an artificial island called Hulhumale. This new homeland is just a short boat-ride from the current capital. Hulhumale sits twice as high as Maldives. This manmade island can hold about half of the islands' population. Residents of Maldives have also watched sea levels rise. They're already battling coastal erosion and the bleaching of coral thanks to rising sea temperatures.

Other potential plaintiffs include a host of popular vacation spots. Kiribati, Tonga, Cook Islands, Palau, French Polynesia, Tokelau and Republic of the Marshall Islands all have woes similar to those of Tuvalu and Maldives. Each nation is struggling for a solution. The Marshall Islands have built a sea wall from the U.S.'s garbage to stop erosion.

So what's a tiny, low-lying island state to do? Seek compensation, of course. But can one country sue another country—particularly the mighty red, white, and blue?

International tribunals, like the International Court of Justice in The Hague, could provide the answer. And there is a legal precedent for such issues. Sixty years ago, the state of Washington brought suit against a Canadian smelting plant. Washington claimed the fumes from the plant were damaging its crops, timber and livestock. The arbiter agreed, and found states have a duty to protect other states and are liable for damages.

Under this rule, the United States' excessive greenhouse gas emissions coupled with its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol could add up to international negligence. In other words, the Tuvaluans might have a case.

But what do experts say? Law professor Andrew Strauss noted that international disputes are moving into the legal system with some success.

Nor surprisingly, the United States has resisted this shift. This resistance could translate into the U.S. denying the authority of an international tribunal. If the U.S. refuses to be sued, Tuvalu will be left high and dry - or rather low and wet.

Every nation would like to think its fate rests in its own hands. But in the case of low-lying island states, this is simply no longer the case. These floating paradises can only hope the U.S. will come around to the view of most experts outside the Bush Administration. That means admitting climate change is real and is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. has adopted a protector role for the "little guys" as referenced during the Iraq war. To keep that promise, Big Brother must cut down on pollutants and give the little guys some room (and cleaner air) to breathe.