Sovereignty and stability

The physical phenomena of global warming are disturbing; but what is less appreciated is the potential - only recently considered - of the implications for political relations among states and how power balances might shift. The disappearance of current coasts under rising seas will have direct impacts upon the inhabitants and their sovereign states.

Sovereignty issues are an emerging issue in the climate debate. The prospect of a navigable - and exploitable - Arctic has prompted states such as Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the US to assert national claims to certain areas. Canada recently declared certain border areas an 'inland sea' - and the US responded that the Arctic was an 'international waterway'. Russia, harkening back to its Czarist and Soviet traditions, planted a flag this summer near the North Pole - an action that provoked any number of claims and counterclaims. Ironically, the big prize in the Arctic is likely to be recoverable oil and gas reserves - providing a new source of greenhouse gas emissions.

At another level, fishery habitat and ocean currents may shift, complicating the ability of coastal fishermen to maintain their livelihoods. During the 1990s, the US and Canada spent more than three years renegotiating the Pacific Salmon Agreement as fishing vessels were seized and border tensions heightened. This experience may become much more common as climate change unfolds. As coastlines change, the global and bilateral agreements that govern everything from offshore fisheries to oil exploration will be tested. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides every nation with a 500 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). If a coastline disappears, presumably the EEZ changes - creating the potential for disputes over fishing areas and, possibly, oil and mineral deposits.

A complicating factor in the 'changing coast scenario' is the failure of the US to ratify the UNCLOS agreement. As the major superpower, the US could exploit its military and naval capability to resolve jurisdictional issues that might arise. Other states, such as the Russian Federation, might respond - leading to more tensions and possible conflicts - and this is just one possible scenario. Jurisdictional issues over well-established zones may become more frequent given the resources potentially at stake. Whether states solve these problems through dialogue and negotiation or through military engagement will shape the future.

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