‘Coral Atoll Nations and Bangladesh Are the Canary in the Coalmine for Sea Level Rise’
Conversation: Brook Meakins, Climate Victims’ Attorney
Oakland attorney Brook Meakins is only 30 years old and fresh out of law school, but that hasn’t stopped her from emerging as a global leader in a surprising new field. Since 2010, Meakins has worked to understand the legal needs of island nations and low-lying communities facing the loss of their land, culture, and way of life due to climate change and sea level rise. She now works to develop legal resources for what she calls “climate victims,” while sounding the alarm about their plight. She has consulted with the government of the Marshall Islands; conducted fact-finding missions in the Maldives, the Phi Phi islands, the Cayman Islands, and others; and presented at climate change conferences around the world. She has also participated in United Nations negotiations regarding the fate of islands off the coasts of Thailand and Panama. I recently talked with Meakins about her work and the underlying issues, which she also blogs about at DrowningIslands.com. An excerpt of our conversation.
Why did you decide to focus on this particular niche?
In June 2010, I went to Costa Rica for my best friend’s wedding. We had been there for a couple days, and we were out in the water, and there was a riptide. It’s only us on the beach, and I get caught in this riptide. I was stuck for 30 to 45 minutes, and it was the scariest, most intense experience of my life. ... And in the months that followed … I thought about the irony of being stuck out there in the water and not being able to do anything, and these people on these drowning islands – that’s when I came up with the term – who didn’t really have any options and no advocates who were willing to fight for them because it wasn’t financially viable. Ever since that moment I have been dedicating a very fair amount of my week toward climate advocacy.
Do you focus on low-lying island nations or is it broader than that?
I focus on the coral atoll nations and Bangladesh – those five that we think are going to cease to exist in the fairly near future. They are what we call the ‘canary in the coalmine,’ and we have so many lessons to learn from their experience. But I think it’s very naïve to think that they’re the only ones that need help and that they’re the only ones that are going to experience something severe because of climate change.
So what strategies are you pursuing as a solution?
As I listened more and more to the situation that these people are in, litigation became not only less realistic but also less sensitive. It’s just law as usual trying to solve a problem that’s not very usual. I’m still involved in those conservations that seek to address climate problems from a legal standpoint, but I think it’s naive to focus all of our energy on that perspective.
So I’ve started to make a push as a storyteller. What I’m really starting to work on this year, and hopefully going forward, is individual emitters taking on personal responsibility. If you tell the average American that this is what’s happening as a direct result of your emissions, as a direct result of our monetary decisions, as a direct result of our political decisions, then the average American is going to be more compelled to change their habits. And I think that’s what’s truly powerful.
Aren’t you also looking at legal strategies for island nations faced with losing their land?
Absolutely. This is a rapidly evolving area, and these questions are just now being asked, in the last year or two years. With each different group in each different part of the world, there’s a unique set of questions you have to ask.
©Commonwealth Secretariat/Victoria Holdsworth
Like whether to buy land from another nation…
That’s a really radical thing that’s been put out there. I think that it’s pretty obvious why. First and foremost, it’s really, really expensive, and all of the groups that we’re talking about are economically stretched. The most famous example of a country [that’s] looking to do this is the Maldives. Of course, they have a new president now. We haven’t heard anything about climate change and the Maldives lately, unless it has to do with The Island President film, and that was all taped quite a while ago. So we have yet to see what’s going to happen. Even when [former president Mohammed] Nasheed did talk about it, it was incredibly complex. It was an idea that was full of question marks. It was going to be a very expensive move. They identified three places that they were curious about: Australia, India, and possibly Sri Lanka, but the legal questions are so complex, not to mention the dollar amount that would be attached to that kind of a move.
Kiribati [pronounced Kiri-bas] and Fiji is a much newer development. It’s frustrating for me because a lot of what has been written about it acts as if the sale has already gone through, and that’s just not the case. It’s preliminary, it’s complicated. They’re certainly not talking about moving the entire island population. I mean the amount of land they’re talking about buying is very small, and it’s because it’s experimental and also because it’s very expensive.
I think it’s fabulous, though, because Fiji in and of itself has many threatened areas. They are actually going to be looking at relocating many of their own islanders. So I think it’s a fabulous move on Fiji’s part to start being a part of the solution. It’s going to be a really interesting project.
Do you have a sense that it’ll definitely happen, then?
I think that it will. It’s a legal contract that’s multifaceted and complicated in its execution, but I do think that it’ll happen.
Will it be a model for other island countries?
I think that everybody will wait and watch and see what goes right and what goes wrong. When other countries are watching, I think they’re going to be thinking, “Well, how do we afford this?”
Not only that, but I think that it’s a very dangerous thing when as a political leader you say, “We are going to move,” because a lot of islanders don’t want to move. The world community, I think, criticizes that perspective, but this is their home and I think it’s very much within their rights to say, “We’re not willing to move. The world can just change their habits. We shouldn’t be the ones to pay for what the rest of the world is doing.” It’s heartbreaking to certain islanders, so it’s a risky political move.
Which countries or communities are facing the most immediate relocation or loss of their land due to sea level rise?
The Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea are talking about relocating. There are quite a few Arctic groups who are talking about relocating. Then we have the people in Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Maldives, and the Marshall islands. Those are the four atoll nations. And then Bangladesh is perhaps the most severe example we have. Dhaka is wildly overcrowded, and they’ll have a very hard time relocating to anywhere else because it’s a very destitute population. People [in neighboring countries] have really made it clear that they’re not welcome. It’s an immigration question. They have a really dire problem on their hands.
[Note: Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, has a population of 7 million and sits at an elevation of two to thirteen meters above sea level.]
Who might be next, or who else is looking at this?
I’d say that most islands are very aware and cognizant of the fact that things have changed. Fishing has changed, the storm seasons have changed, their agriculture has changed. So I would almost posit that almost every island nation is next, and is certainly considering this. Most Caribbean countries are talking about this, and if they’re not, they know that they should be. And when you’re in the kind of world that I’m in, when you attend United Nations negotiations, every country around the world is talking about this. We all know that things are changing.
Nate Seltenrich is an Oakland-based freelance writer. He last wrote for the Journal about how biologists calculate wildlife populations .