The Yale Law Journal


Climate Change and Challenges to Self- Determination: Case Studies from French Polynesia and the Republic of Kiribati

24 Feb 2020

abstract. This Essay examines the nexus of climate change (including related natural phenomena such as ocean acidification) and self-determination, particularly for low-lying atoll states and other entities at the front lines of climate change. The Essay begins by briefly surveying the current state of international law and literature on self-determination. The authors adopt a view of the right of peoples to self-determination as a jus cogens norm, which all members of the international community are obligated to respect and uphold for all peoples. The Essay highlights the linkages between that view of self-determination and the enjoyment of several core human rights that are dependent on a healthy environment. Prominent among these is the right of a people, under international law, to freely dispose of their natural resources as they see fit, in pursuit of that people’s economic, social, political, and cultural development. The Essay then unpacks this argument by examining two case studies. The first case study centers on French Polynesia, where people’s vulnerabilities to climate change and related natural phenomena hamper their right to freely dispose of their natural resources. The second case study examines the Republic of Kiribati, where climate change and related natural phenomena pose a risk to the Republic’s status as a state, at least under a classic conception of international law, because they have led to a defeatist narrative regarding the Republic’s future. Left unchecked, this conception risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, undermining the people of Kiribati’s right of self-determination. However, the Government and the people of Kiribati have resolved to resist defeatist narratives that undermine their sovereignty.


Climate change and related natural phenomena, along with their associated costs, have been discussed from many angles, including increasingly from a human rights perspective.1 But one right that has not been as thoroughly explored, despite being heavily implicated by climate change, is the right of peoples to self-determination. The right of peoples to self-determination is a fundamental right in international law, amounting to a jus cogens norm. All members of the international community are obligated to respect and uphold this norm for the benefit of all peoples, regardless of those peoples’ colonial status.

A healthy environment is crucial to the full exercise of the right to self-determination, particularly for the peoples of island nations. A key component of self-determination is the right of peoples to permanent sovereignty over their natural resources. In addition, self-determination includes the attainment of economic, social, and cultural development in a manner that is dependent on the enjoyment of several core human rights, many of which are themselves dependent on a healthy environment. But these core human rights—and, by extension, the right of peoples to self-determination—are threatened by climate change and related natural phenomena. As sea levels rise, fresh-water sources turn salty, the ocean acidifies, and storms of historic intensities rage, island nations may become unlivable, and their peoples may be forced to emigrate. In exchange for acceptance by host countries, these peoples may very well lose their right to self-govern. The existential threats of climate change and related natural phenomena risk generating a discourse of defeatism that insidiously undermines the permanent sovereignty of peoples over their natural resources and, by extension, the right of those peoples to self-determination.

Upholding the jus cogens norm of the right of all peoples to self-determination will therefore require countries around the world to address climate change and associated phenomena that are increasingly preventing full expression of this right. It will also require new conceptions of self-determination in the event that rising sea levels erode the physical territories to which self-determination has historically been tied.

This Essay considers two case studies to explore the effects of climate change and related natural phenomena on the right to self-determination: one of French Polynesia, and the other of the Republic of Kiribati. The former is currently inscribed by the United Nations (U.N.) as a non-self-governing territory; the latter is an independent state with a history of colonial rule. Both entities grapple with various challenges to their ability to exercise permanent sovereignty over their natural resources, including for the related purposes of socio-economic development and self-determination. But climate change and related natural phenomena pose particular challenges to their respective efforts.

I. self-determination as a jus cogens norm

In general international law, the international community accepts and recognizes certain norms from which no derogation is permitted.2 These so-called jus cogens norms are primarily derived from customary international law—that is, the widespread practice of states undertaken from a sense of legal obligation—as well as from treaty provisions and general principles of law. Through a brief summary of existing law and literature, this Part examines the status of the right of peoples to self-determination as a jus cogens norm under international law.

In the wake of World War II, states adopted the U.N. Charter, which emphasizes “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”3 In connection with measures to promote international economic and social cooperation, Article 55 of the Charter deems the “creation of conditions of stability and well-being” to be a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the right of self-determination.4 Additionally, in discussing the trusteeship system established by the Charter to administer and supervise non-self-governing territories and trust territories placed thereunder by international agreements after World War II, Article 76(b) underscored that a key objective of the trusteeship system is

to promote the political, economic, social, and educational advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories, and their progressive development towards self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned, and as may be provided by the terms of each trusteeship agreement.5

The language in the Charter provided the foundation for later efforts by the international community to concretize self-determination as a right under international law, particularly through declarations by the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA). In the December 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, the UNGA acknowledged that all peoples have the right to self-determination and identified modes and measures through which this right could be operationalized and implemented, particularly by member states of the UNGA, with respect to non-self-governing territories and trust territories under the U.N.’s purview.6 A decade later, the UNGA adopted, by consensus, the Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-Operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. This resolution stressed that “the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations” embraces the right of all peoples “freely to determine, without external interference, their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”7 The resolution also established the duty of every state “to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.”8

The international community has also taken steps to recognize and concretize the right to self-determination outside the context of the UNGA. This was particularly evident in the 1966 adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which are both generally considered by the United Nations to be core international human rights instruments.9 Article 1(3) of both instruments recites the right of all peoples to self-determination, as defined in the 1960 UNGA Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.10 Both the ICCPR and the ICESCR tie this right to, among other things, the right of all peoples to, “for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.”11 And both insist that in “no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”12 Both instruments and the relevant UNGA resolutions underscore the right of all peoples to self-determination as including, among other things, their right to pursue economic, social, and cultural development, including in connection with the dispensation of their natural resources.

The right to self-determination has also been repeatedly recognized and applied by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The Court has applied this right particularly in the context of post-World War II decolonization and the adoption of the U.N. Charter. In discrete passages in its advisory opinions on Namibia (South West Africa),13 Western Sahara,14 and the Chagos Archipelago,15 the ICJ has recognized the right to self-determination as a fundamental human right. The Court has found this right to be applicable to, among other things, the process of decolonization and the freedom of all peoples to determine their political status and pursue their own economic, social, and cultural development. The right extends to peoples in non-self-governing territories and trust territories.

Additionally, the ICJ has affirmed that respect for the right of peoples to self-determination is an obligation erga omnes, meaning that each member of the international community has an obligation to the rest of the international community to respect the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination.16 Indeed, this right is arguably a peremptory norm of international law (a jus cogens norm), establishing a sort of heightened obligation erga omnes from which there can be no derogation.17 Further, the ICJ has stressed that the “right [of peoples] to self-determination under customary international law does not impose a specific mechanism for its implementation in all instances.”18 This right, then, is both expansive and flexible, and takes into consideration both the specific needs and circumstances of the peoples seeking to exercise the right and the obligations of the international community in supporting that exercise.19

The concept of self-determination remains the subject of some considerable debate among international-law practitioners, scholars, and jurists, including in terms of the concept’s precise definition and the instances in which the concept applies. James Crawford, for example, considers self-determination to be a “principle concerned with the right to be a state.”20 By contrast, as this Part indicates, the U.N., the ICJ, and various human rights instruments take a more expansive view of self-determination that is not limited to the creation of new states, secession, or some other form of “external” self-determination, but also includes “internal” or “softer” forms of self-determination. In this Essay, we take the view that self-determination includes the right of a people, whether or not they already constitute a state, to choose freely their own political system and pursue their own economic, social, and cultural development.

II. self-determination in the face of climate change

This Part argues that the right to self-determination is a conglomerate right requiring, among other things, the full enjoyment of multiple subsidiary rights, including social, cultural, and economic rights. More specifically, the social and cultural rights to life,21 adequate food,22 water,23 health,24 an adequate standard of living (including adequate housing),25 the productive use and enjoyment of property,26 and cultural practices and traditions27 are all necessary precursors to the full enjoyment of the right to self-determination. Therefore, undermining any one of these subsidiary rights undermines the right to self-determination. From this perspective, rampant anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions—resulting in climate change and ocean acidification that have profoundly negative effects on the social, cultural, and economic rights of many peoples globally—violate the right to self-determination.

And indeed, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions threaten each of these subsidiary rights. Rising global temperatures, a warming and acidifying ocean, greater intensity and frequency of storms, sea-level rise, and other effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions threaten natural environments, endanger human life (including on coastlines), imperil food and water systems, and undermine the ability of peoples to enjoy suitable standards of living, including the enjoyment of cultural practices and natural-resource-based economic sectors. The right to a healthy environment, or at least to the resources therein, as recognized in a number of nonbinding instruments28 and by multiple international and human rights courts,29 is also implicated in the overarching right to self-determination and is clearly adversely affected by climate change.

The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has explicitly stated that “environmental damage can have negative implications . . . for the effective enjoyment of human rights.”30 In a landmark set of fourteen mapping reports, John H. Knox, the independent expert (later special rapporteur) on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, analyzed the U.N. human rights bodies and mechanisms, international human rights treaties, regional human rights systems, and international environmental instruments to fully assess the connections between human rights and a healthy environment.31 Knox’s reports established “overwhelming support” for the above UNHRC statement, noting that “[v]irtually every source reviewed identifies rights whose enjoyment is infringed or threatened by environmental harm.”32

Another key component of the right to self-determination is the right to permanent sovereignty over natural resources. This requires, among other things, that all peoples have the right “for their own ends, [to] freely dispose of the[] natural wealth and resources” within their respective territories.33 While this particular right has been stressed with respect to territories and peoples experiencing decolonization (a process that usually requires, among other things, suitable access to natural resources in order to enhance institutions in a progressive manner and facilitate self-determination), it is a right held by all peoples, regardless of colonial status. Indeed, it has been argued that this right applies not just to peoples who remain under foreign or colonial authority, such as non-self-governing territories, but also to so-called “post-colonial” peoples who are currently independent but nevertheless have colonial histories.34 A healthy environment is necessary in order for peoples to enjoy the right to permanent sovereignty over natural resources. A people cannot exercise sovereignty over natural resources when the environment that bears those resources is not healthy and is therefore less capable, or entirely incapable, of producing those resources. Therefore, the right to sovereignty over natural resources, too, is threatened by climate change and related natural phenomena.

III. the intersection of self-determination and climate change: case studies

Upholding the jus cogens norm of the right of peoples to self-determination will require each state to work to address climate change and related natural phenomena that are increasingly hampering the full expression of this fundamental right. We believe this obligation is particularly incumbent on states that have some degree of control over the well-being of peoples of non-self-governing territories and communities, especially if those territories and communities are challenged by climate change and related natural phenomena. This obligation is in line with the "sacred trust" conferred onto states with a degree of control, as reflected in Article 73 of the U.N. Charter. But all states are under an obligation erga omnes to assist in the full expression of the right.

The interplay between self-determination and climate change is particularly vivid in two case studies: that of French Polynesia, a self-governing country within the French Republic, currently inscribed with the United Nations as a non-self-governing territory; and that of the Republic of Kiribati, a sovereign and independent state that was, at one point in its history, under British colonial authority. The two case studies will examine the extent to which the adverse effects of climate change and related natural phenomena (including ocean acidification) undermine the right of the peoples of French Polynesia and Kiribati to self-determination. The case studies are addressed in turn.

A. French Polynesia

French Polynesia, an overseas community within the French Republic located in the South Pacific Ocean,35 is comprised of 121 islands grouped in five culturally distinct archipelagoes.36 The community is populated by 276,300 people and comprises over five million square kilometers of exclusive economic zone, an area as large as Western Europe.37 The islands of French Polynesia did not form a political unit prior to French rule in 1901.38

France ruled French Polynesia as an overseas territory from 1901 until 1958, when the French government held a referendum on independence among all its overseas territories.39 Rather than voting for full independence, the people of French Polynesia voted to join the French Community.40 There has not been any other vote of a similar nature organized for French Polynesia since the 1958 referendum.41 However, the topic is regularly discussed among French Polynesians, in particular during local election campaigns,42 and there have been informal and formal requests for a new referendum.43

In 1986, French Polynesia was granted “internal autonomy status” from France,44 a status that recognizes, inter alia, a separate Polynesian identity and the right of the Polynesian people to adopt their own anthem, flag, and currency.45 Since then, the rights associated with French Polynesia’s autonomous status have continued to expand. In 1996, the territory gained control of its exclusive economic zone.46 In 2004, French Polynesia became an “overseas country” within the French Republic,47 a designation that allows French Polynesia to “self-govern[] freely and democratically” by its elected representatives and through local referenda.48 The organic statutory law of French Polynesia further provides that the French Republic guarantees the autonomy of French Polynesia and will facilitate “the evolution of this autonomy, so as to lead French Polynesia in a sustainable economic, social and cultural development, with respect to its own interests, its geographical specificities and its population’s identity.49 While the French state still retains many oversight powers, in line with the French constitutional principle that France is an indivisible whole,50 the 2004 organic statutory law and its subsequent amendments introduced novel constitutional autonomy in French Polynesia.51

As discussed previously, a key component of the right to self-determination is the right to permanent sovereignty over natural resources and the right of peoples “for their own ends, to freely dispose of the natural wealth and resources” within their respective territories.52 In French Polynesia, the elaboration and implementation of frameworks, policies, and plans with regard to natural resources demonstrate the French Polynesian government’s ownership in setting its own development path. The organic statutory law of French Polynesia defines its domain as covering all public goods that have no owners on land, including in all rivers, lakes, and aquifers.53 It also provides that the French Polynesian government enjoys the rights to explore and exploit biological and nonbiological natural resources, including inland waters, soils, and adjacent waters of the territorial seas and the exclusive economic zone.54 The exercise of French Polynesia’s rights and duties—including the rights of exploration and exploitation of biological and non-biological natural resources as well as the duty to support the social, economic, and cultural development of its people—is supported and facilitated by a set of policy frameworks and pluri-annual action plans.55 These are adopted by the government and implemented by administrative departments, along with institutional partners, including the French state, townships, civil society, and private stakeholders.56 Over twenty strategies and policy plans,57 as well as legal codes and frameworks that regulate and facilitate the management and exploitation of French Polynesia’s resources (including an energy-climate plan, an offshore-fishing policy, and a framework for sustainable domestic transport), have been developed to date.58

The realization of these development goals, however, faces many challenges, including the adverse impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. Already, French Polynesia has seen an increase in average temperature of one degree Celsius over the past thirty years and a sea level rise of about 1.2 centimeters per year for the past two decades.59 In addition, episodes of El Niño have contributed to mass-bleaching events that take a toll on the health of coral reefs.60

As an island country, French Polynesia is particularly vulnerable to climate change and ocean acidification. The tourism sector has focused its marketing on the exceptional beauty of the French Polynesian environment, its turquoise waters and colorful reefs being the main attraction.61 Degradation of these ecosystems will diminish the destination’s value.62 Fisheries will also be impacted: coastal fisheries will suffer from degradation of coral reefs, and offshore tuna fisheries will have to adapt to changes in the biomass and migration routes of the fish.63 The pearl industry could also be hurt by increased sea temperatures and ocean acidification.64

Climate change entails both direct and indirect costs. The economic consequences of extreme events are the most apparent and have already increased in severity and frequency. Twenty-four governmental orders recognizing the impact of natural disasters have been issued in the past ten years, compared to nine in the previous decade.65 These orders unblock government funds to help victims of natural disasters and to reconstruct or repair damages to public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, or ports.66 In 2010, category-five Cyclone Oli cost the French Polynesian government at least six billion FCFP (about fifty to sixty million U.S. dollars).67 If further events of similar magnitudes are repeated, they will likely cause French Polynesia significant financial distress.

Adapting infrastructure and the economic model can diminish these future costs and decrease the vulnerability of peoples and islands. This adaptation should be conducted through mainstreaming climate-change considerations in all sectors by adopting a climate-compatible, sustainable-development model. This should include shifting to a less fossil-fuel-dependent economic model;68 diminishing the ecological footprint of public infrastructure, including maritime and coastal infrastructure; and building infrastructure that takes into account climate-impact projections.69 Such adaptations, however, require significant economic means.

Currently, the development model of French Polynesia is strongly dependent on fossil fuels, particularly for maritime and air transportation.70 Additional vulnerabilities include French Polynesia’s dependence on imported consumable goods, the country’s vast geography, and the heavy reliance on French Polynesia’s capital, Papeete (which itself is remote from overseas ports), as the main transportation hub for the entire country.71 In addition to being subject to fluctuations in international oil prices, French Polynesian economic sectors, particularly tourism and exports (for instance, in tuna), could be negatively impacted by international efforts to limit carbon footprints. This could be especially true if French Polynesian transport industries cannot achieve the required technological advances necessary to comply with those efforts.72

French Polynesians, including economic and political actors, are waking up to the urgent call to effectively engage in sustainable development. Climate change and ocean acidification pose significant obstacles for the French Polynesian people to achieve their ambitions and goals. While French Polynesia has not traditionally been a subject of the international narrative of existential threats posed by climate change (unlike the Republic of Kiribati, discussed below), the challenges posed by climate change on the development and self-determination of the people of French Polynesia are substantial. French Polynesia’s status in the U.N. as a non-self-governing territory undermines its ability to obtain the additional aid assistance available to fully independent states, including from the Green Climate Fund and similar organizations. Self-determination is thus doubly affected. First, climate change and related natural phenomena may undermine the ability of the people of French Polynesia “for their own ends, to freely dispose of the natural wealth and resources” within their territory for economic, social, and cultural development,73 a core component of the right of peoples to self-determination. This, in turn, compels continued French Polynesian economic dependence on the French state for climate-change adaptation aid and similar assistance74 and makes any further political and legal powers gained more symbolic than functional. Regardless of whether French Polynesia, alone or with its institutional partners, rises to the challenges presented by climate change and associated natural phenomena, its efforts will only be successful if international partners participate in global mitigation efforts and implement international commitments to achieve sustainable development that leaves no one behind.

B. Republic of Kiribati

Kiribati—including its exclusive economic zone, which is one of the largest in the world—covers over 3.3 million square kilometers,75 an area larger than India’s landmass.76 Kiribati’s land area, however, is proportionately miniscule. It has thirty-three islands, twenty-one of which are inhabited, spread among three archipelagos with a total land area of only 810 square kilometers.77 As a collection of atolls, most of Kiribati is coastal. The land area barely rises above two meters on average, reaching three meters at its highest point, and islands average a few hundred meters at their widest.78

Kiribati emerged from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, former colonies of the British Empire colonized in 1915. In October 1975, with the agreement of the Gilbert Islands, the Ellice Islands separated from the rest of the colony to become Tuvalu. The Gilbert Islands attained full internal self-governance on January 1, 1977.79

After attaining self-governance, the government of the Gilbert Islands proceeded toward independence as part of its exercise of the right to self-determination. In late November 1978, at a constitutional conference in London, it was agreed that, subject to the approval of the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament, the Gilbert Islands should become an independent republic within the British Commonwealth.80 On July 12, 1979, the Kiribati Bill was presented to the UK Parliament to enable the Gilbert Islands to achieve independence.81 Passage of the bill ushered in the birth of a new state: the Republic of Kiribati.

Relevant to our current inquiry, during the debate in the UK Parliament on the Kiribati Bill, there were extensive discussions of how the government and people of Kiribati would survive without strong economic prospects and without the support of the British government.82 The passage of the bill and the forty years of peaceful governance that followed are a tribute to the resourcefulness and hard work of the government and people of Kiribati.

The impact of climate change, particularly sea-level rise, is not a new problem for the government of Kiribati. As early as the 1980s, when the consequences of global warming, shifting long-term weather patterns, and sea-level rise began to gain traction in political affairs globally,83 the threats of climate change were a concern for the government of Kiribati.84 Various reports85 have demonstrated that Kiribati’s crops are becoming less productive, fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce,86 shorelines are eroding,87 and land will become progressively inundated with sea water.88 The plight of the peoples of Small Island Developing States89 due to climate change have been extensively documented.90 These effects range from rising sea levels that can erode and inundate coastal areas,91 to saltwater intrusions that destroy limited freshwater resources and damage food crops,92 to entire islands sinking and whole nations “disappearing.93 These physical impacts are well understood by the government of Kiribati, which has promulgated national adaptation policies to address them.94

What has rarely been discussed in climate discourse or media articles is the impact of the narrative of climate change as an “existential threat” on the right of peoples to self-determination. Such a narrative, while well-meaning, is risky and creates policy uncertainty. How can a state decide its future, and the future of its people, if its future is limited and even doomed? How can a people enjoy the right to self-determination, as provided for under the U.N. Charter, if such a right is undermined by the uncertainty of the country’s continued existence? How can the component right to permanent sovereignty over natural resources be exercised if we take this narrative of total demise at face value?

Other commentators have claimed that countries such as Kiribati have no hope of survival in their current, territorially delimitated configuration. This approach implies that emigration is the only option for the people of Kiribati, though the sensitive subject of climate migration does not sit well with the government and people of Kiribati.95 Many scholars have thoroughly discussed this subject,96 albeit with some disdain for the implications it poses for the people of these countries, especially as with respect to the term “climate refugees.”97 We say “disdain” because inaccurate commentaries on climate migration seem to suggest that local communities, in fear for their lives and livelihoods, are opting to emigrate. This is not accurate for much of the Pacific, as the majority of the people do not want to leave their homes “forever” and do not wish to lose connections with their ancestral land.98 The loss of identity and the negative connotations associated with the term “refugee” are viewed with disfavor by impacted communities, including those in Kiribati.99

The legal implications of emigration are equally uncertain. For instance, Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national, became the first person to ever apply for asylum as a climate refugee when he made his claim in New Zealand in 2014. The New Zealand court dismissed the case and issued a deportation order against Teitiota, claiming an absence of legal principles that allow for recognition of climate refugees under the framework of the 1961 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.100 Teitiota later filed an individual complaint against New Zealand with the U.N. Human Rights Committee, arguing that the court’s decision violated Article 6 of the ICCPR, which recognizes and protects the right to life.101 The Committee determined that New Zealand had not violated Article 6. However, in a ground-breaking finding, the Committee acknowledged that “given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realized.”102

Additionally, there is the issue of statehood. A dire problem due to climate change could arise where an island state such as Kiribati, whose freshwater deposits and land have turned salty, can no longer sustain human habitation or economic life. According to Article 121 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, such a landmass would arguably not be entitled to an exclusive economic zone or a continental shelf.103 In other words, as a coastal state, it could lose much of its territory, a key indicator of statehood under international law. A recent essay by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggests allowing the people of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru to move to Australia and to obtain Australian citizenship. However, if all the citizens of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru become Australian citizens, Australia will gain the right to regulate and manage the exclusive economic zones of these sovereign nations.104 This suggestion was promptly rejected by Pacific Island leaders, but it provides evidence of how the narrative of the existential threats of climate change can generate discourse in a manner that threatens to undermine state sovereignty and the right of peoples to self-determination. It is inconceivable to contemplate that such a proposal could be seriously considered by the government of Australia, or any government for that matter, as it is highly “neocolonialist.” The former Prime Minister of Tuvalu described the proposal as “imperial thinking” and rebutted that “we [Tuvalu] are a fully independent country, and there is no way I’m going to compromise our rights to fisheries resources, our rights to our immediate resources.”105Such proposals erode the international legal corpus that defines the rights of the peoples of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru to self-determination.

In 2016, the incoming administration of the current President of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, took an approach that challenges this prevailing narrative of climate change as an existential threat to island nations. President Maamau proposed a plan that would see the country transform, develop, and survive.106 The plan does not accept climate change as an existential threat. Instead, the plan encourages the people of Kiribati to embrace the challenges that climate change will pose, and turn them into opportunities. It proposes that Kiribati should become the next “Singapore and Dubai” through a range of transformational development projects, mostly premised on marine resources and tourism. Some of the policy actions to realize these goals involve purchasing two jets to boost transportation for tourism, implementing infrastructure projects to upgrade the airport, and laying underwater cable to access high-speed internet. The plan can be viewed as overly optimistic, but it is nonetheless a strong political statement that Kiribati, as a sovereign nation, is not going anywhere. The plan also highlights that Kiribati’s most important resources are its people, and that it plans to develop its human resources to allow for a prosperous future in which the people of Kiribati will continue to live on their own land, in their own homes, on their own terms.

In the context of this Essay, Kiribati’s new approach is aligned with the concept of a people’s right to self-determination as enshrined under international law, particularly with respect to the people’s pursuit of economic, social, and cultural development, including the dispensation of natural resources. It is a political stance premised on international conventions and normative practices of states, as discussed in Part II. In that sense, this new approach dismisses any conclusion that Kiribati would disappear as a result of climate change, with the understanding that “climate defeatism” can have practical implications on national development.107 Countries such as Kiribati, which demonstrate cohesive “ontological” cultural identities,108 will continue to exist as states even if some of their physical territory becomes uninhabitable.

One of the authors has observed that, as a response to the narrative of “sinking islands” and “disappearing nations,” it has become a practice of the government of Kiribati to refrain from entering into discussions and conferences focusing on these topics. This restraint does not necessarily indicate opposition to these conferences. Instead, in the absence of policy measures focused on topics of continued self-determination, and in line with the Kiribati 20-Year Vision policy,109 the government of Kiribati would simply gain little by attending these conferences. Regardless of the adverse effects of climate change and related natural phenomena, the people of Kiribati have an inextinguishable right to self-determination in all its forms, including in connection with the dispensation of natural resources.

States such as Kiribati can make multiple arguments to this effect. First, Kiribati can argue that, once granted, recognition of statehood cannot be rescinded. Kiribati is a member of the Commonwealth, the United Nations, the Pacific Islands Forum, and the World Bank, among other multilateral organizations. The constitutions of most international and regional bodies appear to make no provision for rescinding membership, and there is no provision within the U.N. Charter for revoking membership for states that no longer exist. The closest the Charter comes to such a mechanism is a process of expulsion, under Article 6, for states that persistently violate the Charter’s principles, but this is distinct from expulsion due to a change in legal statehood status. Kiribati’s right to self-determination is linked to international recognition of its status as a sovereign independent state, a status that should not be altered by ominous projections of climate change.

Second, there is precedent in the international community according to which, once a territory is recognized as belonging to a state, this recognition cannot be rescinded for any reason.110 States including Somalia and Kuwait, for example, have continued to enjoy recognition as such, despite the lack of a competent government, and despite invasion and occupation that effectively eliminated those states’ territory. In such instances, international law “artificially constructs the continuation of the state.”111 Kiribati can cite this precedent to counter suggestions that the country will experience sovereign demise due to the impacts of climate change and related natural phenomena on its territorial boundaries.112 Arguably, the best possible compromise is one that would allow Kiribati and other similarly situated states to continue implementing their obligations and commitments under existing international conventions, while at the same time allowing such states to continue pursuing their economic, social, and cultural development, with some certainty that their right to exist is not undermined, and with the recognition that such development is integral to the continued exercise of the right of those peoples to self-determination.

For over forty years, the government of Kiribati has demonstrated conviction as it exercised the right to self-determination, despite initial reservations by the UK Parliament. It should continue to exercise that right, in pursuance of a prosperous, healthy, and peaceful future, in full exercise of permanent sovereignty over natural resources, without being hamstrung by narratives of climate-change defeatism. The international community must respect that right, in line with its status as a jus cogens norm.


Climate change and related natural phenomena, the result primarily of rampant anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, challenge the fundamental right of peoples to self-determination. They pose particular challenges for peoples in non-self-governing territories like French Polynesia, who remain deeply reliant on the largesse of administering foreign powers in adapting to climate change and related natural phenomena. They also pose challenges for peoples in fully independent states like the Republic of Kiribati, who find their long-sought-after sovereignty challenged by the physical realities of climate change and related natural phenomena, as well as by the attendant defeatist narrative.

The international community as a whole must uphold the fundamental right to self-determination, which is a jus cogens norm. This will require concerted and effective efforts to mitigate anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to the extent necessary to minimize their social, economic, environmental, political, legal, and moral implications for the exercise of permanent sovereignty over natural resources and, by extension, the right of peoples to self-determination. It will also require new conceptions of self-determination in the event that the physical territories to which self-determination has historically been tied are eroded. Otherwise, climate change and related natural phenomena will compromise the satisfactory conclusions of French Polynesia’s and Kiribati’s respective journeys to full self-determination.

Tekau Frere is a French Polynesian consultant working primarily with the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner as an adviser on U.N. ocean processes. In this capacity, she is continuing her working relationship with U.N. delegations of Pacific Small Island Developing States in New York, with whom, for six years, she collaborated on various ocean-related processes. This included securing a dedicated sustainable development goal for oceans, working on the SAMOA Pathway, and participating in the “BBNJ” negotiations. She previously held positions of adviser to the minister of environment and mining (2011-2013) and to the minister of land-use planning and public works (2009-2011) for French Polynesia, during which time she worked on climate change, marine, and land-use planning policies. Ms. Frere holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Master in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is sincerely grateful to a long-time friend who has become an informal legal advisor and mentor, Dr. Herve Raimana Lallemant. She specially acknowledges the men and women (politicians, diplomats, scientists, civil society representatives, private sector representatives) who are dedicating their careers and lives to finding a solution against climate change. Lastly, she would like to extend an enormous thanks to her two co-authors.

Clement Yow Mulalap is an international lawyer with a focus on the law of the sea, climate change law, and Indigenous Peoples law. Clement (or "Yow," as he is more commonly called on his home island of Wa'ab in the Federated States of Micronesia) has been the legal adviser for the Permanent Mission of the Federated States of Micronesia to the United Nations for nearly a decade, during which time he has helped author government submissions to the International Seabed Authority, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, and various multilateral environmental processes; as well as represented the Federated States of Micronesia in negotiations for major multilateral environmental agreements. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a J.D. (with a certificate in Asia-Pacific Legal Studies) from the William S. Richardson School of Law, and an LL.M. in International Legal Studies from New York University School of Law. Ancestors, elders, family, friends, colleagues, teachers, mentors, champions for the environment and future generations, co-authors: Thank you for your guidance, inspiration, and tremendous work on all our behalf. Karim magar magargad.

Tearinaki Tanielu is the Director for Multilateral Affairs of the Kiribati Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Immigration. He is a former United Nations—Nippon Foundation Fellow and an Alliance of Small Islands States Climate Change Fellow, during which time he was based in New York and followed negotiations on climate change and oceans. He has served as Advisor to the Kiribati Permanent Representative to the United Nations,and he currently serves as Consultant to the International Seabed Authority, on secondment from his Government. His areas of expertise include climate change, oceans governance, law of the sea, and natural resources development. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Geology and Coastal Processes from the University of Queensland, Australia, and a MSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southampton, U.K. Thanks to Professor Jack Corbett (University of Southampton) and Professor Jon Barnett (University of Melbourne) for discussions that encouraged and shaped the section on Kiribati for this essay, and to all colleagues who assisted in providing feedback. To the Yale Law Journal editors and his wonderful co-authors: Kam bati n rabwa!

The views and content expressed in this Essay are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kiribati Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, the Government of the Republic of Kiribati, or the National Government of the Federated States of Micronesia.