Retno warns UN General Assembly of potential uncertainties, conflicts from rising sea levels

Rising sea levels would threaten lives and livelihoods as well as alter maritime boundaries, which might lead to geopolitical uncertainties and conflicts, said Indonesia’s top diplomat.

A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

The Jakarta Post


Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi speaks during the Breakfast Summit on Addressing the Existential Threats Posed by Sea-Level Rise on Sept. 21, 2023, a side event at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. PHOTO: FOREIGN MINISTRY/THE JAKARTA POST

September 25, 2023

JAKARTA – The rise in global sea levels induced by climate change would not only lead to natural disasters, and could also trigger geopolitical conflicts from changing coastal borders, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi told a side event on Thursday at the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Retno conveyed her cautionary statement at the Breakfast Summit on Addressing the Existential Threats Posed by Sea-Level Rise during the UNGA in New York, the United States.

Rising sea levels would threaten lives and livelihoods as well as alter maritime boundaries, which might lead to geopolitical uncertainties and conflicts, said the country’s top diplomat.

“Therefore, we need to continue to encourage the use of international legal approach to safeguard state sovereignty, rights and livelihoods,” she told Thursday’s meeting, according to a statement released by the Foreign Ministry.

Retno also called on all nations to unite in mitigating and adapting to the potential threats of sea level rise by reducing emissions and helping to strengthen climate adaptation measures, particularly for coastal communities.

“The threat is real and imminent. It has already had an impact on island and archipelagic countries,” she said, according to the statement.

Separately, Retno invited island and archipelagic countries to strengthen cooperation on maritime issues during the high-level meeting at the 2023 Archipelagic and Island States Forum (AIS Forum), slated to be held on Oct. 11 in Bali.

Global sea level rise has accelerated over the last century and could reach up to 1.1 meters by 2100 if the world continues to release greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere at the current rate, according to a report issued last year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Even if the world succeeded in significantly cutting emissions, global sea levels would still rise by up to 0.6 meters, said the IPCC report. The panel estimated that global sea level rise reached around 0.2 meter between 1901 and 2018.

The delegates of other countries concurred with Retno on the existential and security threats posed by sea level rise to island and archipelagic nations.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong told the UNGA on Friday that climate change, which was progressing faster than the global efforts to slow it, also posed a particular security threat to Pacific Island countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands that lay only a few meters above sea level.

“The first article of the UN Charter speaks to maintaining peace and security,” Wong said in her remarks during the UNGA General Debate, “but there can be no security if the sea itself closes in.”

Leaders of island nations have slammed rich countries for failing to act on the climate crisis, putting their countries’ at risk.

“There are many amongst us, the small and marginalized islands of our globe, surrounded by rising seas and scorched by rising temperatures, who are beginning to question this annual parade of flowery speeches and public pretense of brotherhood, otherwise known as the UN annual General Assembly,” Saint Lucia Prime Minister Philip Pierre told the forum on Friday, Reuters reported.

The Pacific has recently become a focus of the power competition between the US and China, with both countries attempting to court the small island states in the region, putting them at greater risk of existential and security threats than ever.

US President Joe Biden is expected to host a second summit on Monday with leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum at the White House, where climate will be on the agenda.

Redrawing maps

Island states might eventually have to face the reality that coastal erosion due to sea level rise would lead to shrinking of their maritime territories, an expert has said.

International law mandated that countries’ control over their maritime territories be principally derived from control over their land territories, said I Made Andi Arsana, a geodetic engineering expert specializing in maritime delineation at Gadjah Mada University.

“If the baseline to measure maritime territories recedes because of sea level rise, so will the outer boundaries,” Andi said.

Countries would eventually have to redraw their maps to accurately depict geographical features for navigational safety, he added.

However, such a step would depend on whether countries decided to uphold bilateral agreements on maritime delineation, he noted. Negotiations to redraw maritime boundaries could only begin if the affected countries were open to talks, Andi said.

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