The president of the Pacific atoll nation of Kiribati, which averages only about 2 meters above sea level, has already spent millions of dollars to buy land in Fiji as a potential new home for his 100,000 people. As sea levels rise, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests, large ocean waves will increasingly taint the countryâ€™s groundwater and threaten its agriculture; Kiribati can expect to become at least partly uninhabitable long before seas rise enough to submerge it. Other island nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu face the same plight.
So far, the worldâ€™s attention has rightly focused on how much these places have to lose: their homes, their communities, their cultures, their vistas. But these countries have another, less visible set of assets at stake as they consider their survivalâ€”assets that wonâ€™t necessarily be lost, but which raise substantial questions. These are their large and valuable maritime zones.
Kiribati, like other island nations, controls hundreds of thousands of square miles of the ocean that surrounds it. Kiribatiâ€™s land area is about that of Kansas City, while the ocean territory it controls is larger than India. Within these â€œexclusive economic zones,â€ to use the UN term, island nations possess the power to regulate, tax, or disallow any economic activity, including mining or drilling for oil. The tuna fishing alone in the domain of Pacific island nations is worth an estimated $4 billion a year.