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Webinar Series: Rising Sea Levels: Promoting Climate Justice through International Law

Date: 3-24 March 2021

Time: 3, 11, 17 March (09:00-10.30), and 24 March (17.00-18.30) GMT

Venue: Online

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Series Overview

Low-lying coastal regions and island nations, are directly susceptible to threats posed by global warming and concomitant rise in sea levels. Many of those nations are small island developing states largely depending on fishing and tourism for their economic survival. Rising sea levels present a unique threat to the territorial integrity of those coastal states, to their coastal communities, their oceanic resources, and, indeed, to their continuous statehood. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted, climate change will affect the physical territory of states in a number of ways, such as the loss of viable ecosystems due to desertification, increased soil salinity, flooding of coastal and low-lying regions or loss of reliable access to land due to increased severe weather events such as hurricanes and tsunami. (IPCC, The Physical Science Basis: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007)). However, these small island States also often have the least capacity, financing, or political support for mitigation and adaptation initiatives.

In this seminar series, we will be looking at rising sea levels as a global problem and the legal issues arising from it from the lens of international law and climate justice. What can we do in international law to improve things for now and for future generations? Is climate litigation the key? Would an ICJ advisory opinion help to strengthen the Paris Agreement? 

This webinar series is convened by Dr Constantinos Yiallourides, Arthur Watts Research Fellow on the Law of the Sea, BIICL

Join in the conversation @BIICL #RisingSeaLevels #ClimateJustice

Post-event reports and recordings of the webinars can be found with the details of each session below. The series playlist can also be viewed on our YouTube channel.

Webinar 1: Rising Sea Levels & International Law: The role of the International Law Commission

Wednesday, 3 March 2021  (09:00-10:30, GMT)

At its seventieth session (2018), the International Law Commission (ILC) decided to include the topic 'Sea level rise in relation to international law' in its long-term programme of work. It established an open-ended Study Group on the topic, co-chaired on a rotating basis by Mr.Bogdan Aurescu, Mr. Yacouba Cissé, Ms. Patrícia Galvão Teles, Ms. Nilüfer Oral and Mr. Juan José Ruda Santolaria. In a joint oral report of the Co-Chairs of the Study Group (Chapter X and Chapter XI, sect. B)., the Study Group announced that it was expected to work on three subtopics namely: a) issues related to the law of the sea, under the co-chairpersonship of Mr. Bogdan Aurescu and Ms. Nilüfer Oral; b) issues related to statehood, and c) issues related to the protection of persons affected by sea-level rise, under the co-chairpersonship of Ms. Patrícia Galvão Teles and Mr. Juan José Ruda Santolaria.

Key questions to be considered

  • What are key issues posed by sea level rise under international law?
  • What is the role of the ILC on these issues?
  • What work has been done so far?
  • What future institutional and legal changes may be needed?
  • What scope might exist for civil society, researchers and others to contribute to the work of the ILC on these issues?


Sir Michael Wood, Twenty Essex, Member of the ILC


  • Professor Patrícia Galvao Teles, Autonomous University of Lisbon, Member of the ILC
  • Professor Dr Davor Vidas, The Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Chair of ILA Committee on International Law and Sea-Level Rise
  • Aylin Yildiz, World Trade Institute

Watch a Recording of the Webinar  |   Read the Event Report 

Webinar 2: Rising Sea Levels: A Matter for the ICJ?

Thursday, 11 March 2021  (09:00-10:30, GMT)

In 2011, the President of Palau, Mr Toribiong announced that the Republic of Palau would ask the UN General Assembly to seek an ICJ advisory opinion: "It is time we determine what the international rule of law means in the context of climate change." The Marshall Islands and Vanuatu, have also, at various points in time, expressed their intention to pursue an ICJ advisory opinion on climate change. However, this was not actively pursued. In 2013, the Yale Report outlined some key aspects of this issue and called upon the UNGA to petition the ICJ to issue an opinion on state responsibility for transboundary harm caused by greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, Prof Phillipe Sands, QC delivered a public lecture at the UK Supreme Court focusing on the role of international law and judges in addressing legal issues relating to climate change, endorsing this approach among others. A group of young international students from many countries, including the Pacific Islands, are campaigning on this issue and seek a forum to share their views and hear back from experts.

Key questions to be considered

  • Could the Pacific Islands and/or islands of the Commonwealth seek an Advisory Opinion from the ICJ on the issue? Should they do so? What are the opportunities and risks?
  • What are various interests States might have to back this initiative?
  • What would be the question(s) posed to the ICJ?
  • Would that be the optimum course of action? And what are the problems and limitations of this approach?


Professor Antonios Tzanakopoulos, University of Oxford


  • Jule Schnakenberg and Aoife Fleming, World's Youth for Climate Justice (WYCJ)
  • Dr Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh, Leiden University
  • Alex Shattock, Landmark Chambers

Watch a Recording of the Webinar  |   Read the Event Report 

Webinar 3: Rising Sea Levels: Climate Displacement as a Human Right Violation

Wednesday, 17 March 2021  (09:00-10:30, GMT)

In January 2020, the Human Rights Committee in its decision on the case brought by Ioane Teitiota made direct links between climate change and human rights and, more specifically, with State obligations in protecting the human rights of those affected by the effects of climate change. Rising sea level and the potential harm to those affected by the phenomenon took centre stage in the decision. The Human Rights Committee decided that rights to life could be affected by rising sea levels and home countries have an obligation to take adaptation measures to address them. Failure or inability to do so, creates human rights obligations for deporting authorities and may invoke the non- refoulement principle. Such threats to human rights caused by rising sea levels, are well reported in the Pacific islands. But is there an obligation to protect people in a context where harm is predictable but not yet imminent?

Questions to be considered:

  • What is the significance of the Human Rights Committee's decision to the protection of human rights amidst rising sea levels? What has been the impact (if any) of the decision?
  • How can science inform the human rights decision/policy making process in the creation of adaptation measures?
  • What are the lessons to be learned for other geographic regions in addressing predicted but not realised human rights threats?
  • What is the state of the international law when it comes to climate displaced populations?


Dr Irene Antonopoulos, Royal Holloway, University of London


  • Scientia Professor Jane McAdam, University of New South Wales (UNSW)
  • Emeline Siale Ilolahia, Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO)
  • Prof Benoit Mayer, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Matthew Reed QC and Admas Habteslasie, Landmark Chambers

Watch a Recording of the Webinar 

Webinar 4: Rising Sea Levels: Climate Change Litigation before Domestic Courts

Wednesday, 24 March 2021 (17:00-18:30, GMT)

Since the mid-2000s, several domestic legal systems have witnessed the emergence of litigation focused on legal liability for climate change harms and damages, as a result of rising sea levels. These cases have mainly been directed against national and - particularly - local governments, for damages to coastal properties allegedly exacerbated by lack of or inadequate governmental actions or regulations. However, climate liability litigation has been filed also against private corporate actors, namely carbon majors, such as in some Californian cases filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, in 2017. In these cases, the carbon majors are considered 'proximate cause' of climate change, and the cities seek to reimburse taxpayers for adaptation costs such as sea walls, necessary to protect them from rising sea levels. The importance and the need of domestic climate litigation related to sea level rise is increasing in every part of the globe, both in consideration of the urgency of this phenomenon and associated impacts, and the growth of the population and infrastructures along the coast.

Questions to be considered

  • What course of legal action can be pursued at the domestic level by affected coastal communities seeking redress for climate change impacts, such as sea level rise?
  • Where legal responsibility for taking protective action against rising sea levels should lie? What about claims for compensation?
  • What are the consequences of climate litigation from an intergenerational point of view?


Rt. Hon. Lord Carnwath of Notting Hill , Former Judge of UK Supreme Court; Landmark Chambers


  • Alex Goodman, Landmark Chambers
  • Jason Reeves, Zelle LLP
  • Dr Joana Setzer, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
  • Deepa Sutherland, Zelle LLP

Watch a Recording of the Webinar 

CPD Information

This event offers the equivalent of 6 CPD hours.


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