Posted by: Andi Arsana | March 26, 2008

Global warming and the threat to sovereignty

Read also a similar article in The Jakarta Post

Global Warming (GW) is currently one of the most popular issues. United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Bali last year was one of the indications.
GW certainly has a lot of impacts. This article deals with the impact of GW to sovereignty, especially to sea level rise and its relation to small islands, maritime jurisdiction, and international maritime boundaries.
Indonesia is an archipelagic state with more than 17 thousands islands. According to the President Decree no. 78/2005, Indonesia has 92 small islands. These small islands include several outer islands, with strategic values to national sovereignty. On these outer islands, basepoints are placed to construct baselines for references in measuring maritime jurisdiction including territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. The baselines are also the reference in delimiting maritime boundaries with ten neighboring states: India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Australia and East Timor.

With regard to temperature rise, the UN reveals that during 20th century, global temperature increase was up to 0.74°C. If carbon dioxide concentrations were stabilized at 550 ppm the average warming would likely be in the range of 2-4.5°C, with the best estimate of 3°C.

Other phenomenon is the melt down of polar ice. This contributes to sea level rise of 17 cm during the 20th century. It is predicted that sea level rise may be within the range of 28-58 cm by the end of the 21st century (UN, 2007).

One of the impacts of sea level rise is the submergence of small islands or low-land area. Low-lying South Pacific nations like Kiribati, and Vanuatu, for example, are sinking beneath the waves (NZ Herald, 2006).

Meanwhile, more dramatic news has been spreading out in Indonesia. It is predicted to lose around 2,000 islands in 2030 due to GW. Interestingly, this news has been asserted by Prof. Indroyono Susilo from the Department of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (Kompas.com, 27 February 2008) and the head of Yogyakarta Bureau of Meteorology and Geophysics (MBG) (Antara, 23 May 2007). Murjaya, for example stated that sea level rise may be up to 29 cm in 2030. It can be inferred that at least 2,000 islands in Indonesia are less then 29 cm in height. Unfortunately, it has not been confirmed whether the supporting data is available. Murjaya, on the other hand, also confirmed that it was not based on research conducted by BMG.

Even though the numbers of islands sinking due to GW cannot be easily predicted, the potential is however obvious. Submergence of small outer islands will, consequently change baselines, which in turn may alter the status and extent of Indonesia’s maritime area. This, therefore, is a serious issue that may threaten sovereignty (island submergence) and sovereign rights (maritime jurisdiction).

Although we should be aware of any issues concerning GW and submergence of islands, we need to be clear of some matters to avoid misunderstanding. For example, we should understand the definition of island according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Article 121 states that an island should be naturally formed, surrounded by water, and above sea level during high tide. The last criterion closely relates to Geodesy and Hydrography as it deals with sea tide observation. Without precise data of sea tide and height of every single island in Indonesia, we cannot tell numbers of islands sinking due to GW. It is even difficult to tell which objects are island and which are not.

With regards to international maritime boundaries, does GW have anything to do? Sea level rise can definitely change coast line and, ultimately, baselines. This can alter the extent of maritime claims but will not change the already agreed maritime boundaries with neighbors. This is pursuant to Article 62 (2)(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969 which serves to exclude boundary treaties from the rule that a party to a treaty may invoke “a fundamental change in circumstances” as a ground for terminating a treaty on notice. In addition, the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in Respect of Treaties of 1978 also provides that a succession of states “does not as such affect a boundary established by a treaty or obligations and rights established by a treaty and relating to the regime of a boundary” (Article 11, Boundary regimes). In other words, GW will not change the already established maritime boundaries but may affect the boundaries that yet to be settled.

Being an archipelagic state, GW should be Indonesia’s serious concern as it may affect sovereignty. The question is how to fight GW? Can this global phenomenon be influenced by an individual action? It should be admitted that the change in energy usage behavior may be the key to fight GW. Unfortunately, this, most of the time, is beyond the power of ordinary people, but in the hand of only few people with power in the society.

What we can do is something small but still makes an impact. Taufik Ismail wrote that we might not be able to be a banyan tree but we can be bushes around a lake. We can also be grass, which might not be tall and strong but it strengthen the river banks. Even though we cannot do something like Andrew Shepherd (Movie The American President, 1995) who asserted that the White House will send “Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a twenty percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years”, at least we can say “no plastic bag please” when buying a book. What small thing have you done to fight GW today?


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