Adapting Ocean Governance for a World of Rising Seas with Dr. Nilufer Oral

Audio Editing by: Wangyuxuan Xu Scripting by: Marie Hogan Blurb by: Elizabeth Sherstinsky

Climate Change and the Law of the Sea

Sea level rise due to climate change will directly impact at least 70 countries, many of them small, low-lying island nations. Though their contribution to climate change is very little, they face some of its worst consequences. This is not a new issue, and tension has been building since the late 1980s. In 1989, the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, issued an international declaration, the first of its kind, calling attention to sea level rise due to climate change, and how it impacts its land. Island states often have small land area, but, under international law, have jurisdiction over a larger area of their surrounding seas for economic purposes. What if an island loses territory due to sea level rise? If so, it could lose its economic zone. This is also a national security question; could another nation then legally take over this economic zone? Currently, the international law framework, called the Law of the Sea, does not answer these questions even though the  livelihoods of millions are at issue. A 2021 declaration by Pacific Island nations calls for maritime boundaries to stay where they are now regardless of sea level rise. However, this requires the endorsement of other nations. The United Nations, up until now, has paid comparatively little attention to this issue, but, through its study group on sea-level rise, the UN is aiming to engage non-low-lying island nations, and attempt to resolve these and other questions. 

Climate Refugees Need Protected Status Under the Law

By 2050, there could be 1.2 billion climate refugees, according to the international think tank International Environmental Partnership. But these refugees often do not fit the legal definition of “refugee”, including individuals displaced in the United States. Becoming a “refugee” under the law confers special status; it protects from deportation, for example. In 2013, a man from Kiribati, a country undergoing severe sea level rise, applied for refugee status as a “climate refugee” in New Zealand. His application was denied, and he was repatriated to Kiribati. The man subsequently filed a complaint with the UN Convent of Civil Liberties, claiming his right to life had been violated. The man lost his case, because his life was not found to be under immediate danger. However, the wording of the UN’s ruling in the case asserts that those fleeing a climate crisis cannot be sent home, thereby creating a non-binding international construct. This case illustrates some of the complexities raised by climate refugees and how they are currently viewed in many of the world’s legal systems.  Sea level rise is not only an issue of the future but already an issue of the present. 

Who is Dr. Nilufer Oral?

Dr. Nilufer Oral is director at the Center for International Law at the National University of Singapore. She is also a member of the International Law Commission at the United Nations and co-chair of the study group at the UN on sea level rise in relation to international law. 

Read More

Sink or swim: Can island states survive the climate crisis? | | UN News

Statement by Ms. Nilüfer Oral, Co-Chairs of the Study Group on Sea level rise — Interaction with members of the ILC 2020

Nilufer Oral–COP 26 

International Law as an Adaptation Measure to Sea-level Rise and Its Impacts on Islands and Offshore Features | Request PDF


Dr. Oral: Can we preserve existing rights, lawful rights of state against sea level rise? Particularly, you know, those are states who did not contribute to climate change.

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Small island states are severely threatened by sea level rise caused by climate change. Right now, they rely on what’s called the Law of the Sea Convention to protect their economic interests and guarantee their political borders. But Dr. Nilufer Oral, Director of the Center for International Law at the National University of Singapore, says that sea level rise threatens these protections.

Dr. Oral: The problem is what happens now with sea level. If that island becomes uninhabitable, or it’s losing territory, the legal question is, does it become a rock? We don’t have any answers to these in international law right now, and this raises peace and security issues in international law.

Ethan: According to Dr. Oral, a recent declaration by the Pacific Island States could provide a solution. It would guarantee that maritime boundaries stay where they are now, rather than shrinking as sea levels rise. But to take effect, this declaration needs the endorsement of other states.

Dr. Oral: So it’s a very gray area right now, which is important, because that means that we have an opportunity. And that’s why moving this forward is so important to garner that widespread state support.

Ethan: To learn more about how climate change is complicating the Law of the Sea Convention and how you can help efforts to protect small island states from sea level rise effects, visit

Adapting Ocean Governance for a World of Rising Seas with Dr. Nilufer Oral