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Ecological Refugees, States Borders, and the Lockean Proviso



Ecological refugees are expected to make up an increasing percentage of overall refugees in the coming decades as predicted climate change related disasters will displace millions of people. In this essay, I focus on those rights ecological refugees may claim on the basis of collective self-determination. To this end, I will focus on a few specific cases that I call cases of ‘ecological refugee states’. Tuvalu, the Maldives, and to a certain extent, Bangladesh are predicted to be ecological refugee states in the near future. These are states whose entire (or close to it) geographical territory is predicted to be lost to rising sea levels; the collective body of the people will itself become an ecological refugee.

The question is: what may the people of an ecological refugee state legitimately claim on the basis of their right to self-determination? Should we redraw state borders to accommodate a New Tuvalu? I argue that a plausible position regarding territorial rights is that when (1) a people clearly is (or recently was) self-determining and has a legitimate claim to continue to be self-determining, and (2) the self-determination of a people is existentially threatened because the people lacks territorial rights, that (3) the people becomes a candidate for sovereign over a new territory. The result is that existing state borders may need to change to accommodate something like a New Tuvalu. To generate these results on behalf of ecological refugee states, I examine the principles of the system of territorial states. Because the system of territorial states is a system of exclusive rights over goods, especially land, it is possible that it is subject to the conditions of a Lockean proviso mechanism. This paper is dedicated mainly to adapting a version of the Lockean proviso for use in territorial rights theory.