Climate change and Pacific nationhood

International Law PhD candidate Nathan Ross is exploring what cultural rights Pacific ‘climate change migrants’ will have in a new country.

International Law PhD candidate Nathan Ross

My thesis is called "Low-lying States, Climate Change-Induced Relocation, and the Collective Right to Self-Determination". It's possible that most, or even all, people who live in certain small Pacific island states will have to relocate because of rising seas and other effects of climate change. I'm trying to work out, if that happens, what rights those peoples have in international law, with respect to their cultures, languages and ways of life. And how might those aspects of nationhood be enabled and protected in the territories of other countries?

Upholding rights in a new land

So far, I’ve found that people in the territories of their own countries enjoy the collective right to self-determination, and that under international law other countries do have obligations to help enable that right in the case of en masse relocation.

Furthermore, there are numerous ways of making this happen, which all have precedent in international law. While all the options are challenging, the costs of meeting those challenges are far lower than the costs of depriving peoples of their right to self-determination.

A higher ambition for climate migrants

Discussions about climate change migration are focused on meeting minimum standards of human rights, like protecting the right to life. However, I'm hoping to elevate the discussion to something far more aspirational—how can we ensure that people who are forced to relocate get to thrive as communities, not just survive as individuals?

Right culture, supportive staff

My desire to produce robust and practical research has been well supported at Victoria's School of Law. The School has a culture of research excellence fostered by the diverse, knowledgeable, analytical and experienced staff. In particular, I have received outstanding support from my supervisors. Staff in general are very capable and supportive, and the resources are excellent—particularly the library and my office in the beautiful Government Buildings.

Advice for research students

Studying for a PhD is a long-term commitment, and it has its ups and downs. But for me, it has absolutely been worth it. There are many opportunities that come with doing a PhD, including teaching, publishing, and presenting at conferences and seminars. Take as many of those opportunities as you can while staying on track with your research. Those things are good life experiences and add a lot of value to your CV.