Finding Fonua: Disappearing Pacific Island Nations, Sea Level Rise, and Cultural Rights

For many Pacific Islands, complete territorial loss due to sea level rise is not a question of if but when. Despite the urgency of the issue, however, legal discourse and international instruments have only analyzed such loss through a narrow construction of adaptation and mitigation efforts. In particular, climate change and the accompanying national and international responses are typically viewed through an exclusively scientific, political, and financial lens. Even the framing of climate change through a human rights framework has been limited to discussions of political, social, and civil rights, ultimately neglecting a discussion of cultural rights. Therefore, this Essay proposes that analyzing the impacts of climate change on the cultural rights of Pacific Islanders will help to more fully conceptualize the dire human rights consequences on the disappearing islands in the Pacific. In emphasizing cultural rights, the Author submits that freezing territorial baselines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) offers a mechanism to protect traditional and cultural practices once lands have disappeared. Additionally, to survive the real threat of cultural extinction, the people of the Pacific Islands must engage in a different type of adaptation—cultural adaptation—in order to sustain an identity away from their homelands.