Could a country disappear?
See what's covered in this big question in our bite-sized animation below:
Breaking it down: what do we mean by a country?
The definition of a 'country' is hotly debated, and different discliplines and people might mean different things when they talk about one. So, it’s worth thinking about what some of these key terms might mean. Let's dig deeper...
- Territory refers to a part of the Earth’s surface which is claimed, occupied, and governed by an individual, group, or government. The territory of the UK, for example, includes the land covering England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the sea immediately surrounding it, as well as a number of smaller islands across the British Isles. Control over a territory is an important (arguably, essential) component of a country. Whilst the boundaries between different territories are usually marked as borders on a map, in some places, there are disagreements over who claims what land. One of the longest-running territorial disputes is over the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. Since 1947, both country’s governments have claimed control over the same portion of mountainous land, leading to three wars and an ongoing military standoff.
A nation describes a significant group of people who are bound together by a shared identity, culture, religion, language, and history. The political scientist, Benedict Anderson has described nations as ‘imagined communities'. By this he means that although it's impossible for members of the same national community to all know one another, members share enough interests and characteristics that they can imagine what each other might be like. This might be because they eat similar food, speak the same language, read the same newspapers, or watch the same TV shows.
Nations often occupy the same territory, but not always. For example, the Kurdish nation is spread across modern day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Equally, some territories contain multiple national groups such as the territory of Belgium which is divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemish community in the North, the French-Speaking Wallonia community to the South, and the German-speaking minority in the East.
We use the term 'diaspora' to describe those members of a nation living outside the geographic area with which they identify. For some countries which are closely associated with a specific nation, more of the nation can be found living outside the country than in it. For example, whilst there are just over 4 million Lebanese people living in Lebanon, there are over 15 million people of Lebanese descent living around the world.
Sovereignty refers to the power held by a state to rule over a territory, without interference from other states. Sovereign states usually (but not always) enjoy control over a country’s laws and borders, and are recognised by other states as having the right to do so.
If you followed debates around the 2016 Brexit referendum, you might remember that some of the arguments about whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union centred around who should have the right to make laws which impacted the UK. Those in favour of leaving argued that by joining the EU and agreeing to follow EU laws the British government had given up some of its sovereignty. Those who wanted to remain, however, believed that the government still had sovereignty because it was able to vote on EU laws and was better able to defend and protect the UK’s economic interests from inside the EU. What do you think?
With these ideas in mind, does that make coming up with a definition of a country any easier? A little, but not much. One early definition comes from the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which stipulates that countries must have: a permanent population, defined territorial boundaries, a sovereign government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. There is disagreement, however, over whether a country needs to be recognised by other countries in order to be considered a country. The democratically elected government of Taiwan, for example, claims full sovereignty over the territory of the East Asian Island and its population of over 23 million people. Taiwanese citizens can travel around the world on a Taiwanese passport, and the island has its own military and currency. Yet, the government of China continues to claim that Taiwan is a breakaway region of the Chinese mainland, and though Taiwan trades with countries all around the world, just 15 other states officially recognise it as a country.
One solution might be to just count the 193 members of the United Nations as official countries, but even here things aren’t straightforward. Both the Holy Sea (also known as the Vatican) and Palestine are UN observers, who can speak at the UN but cannot vote on its resolutions. Plus, a number of other organisations, including the European Union, are involved in UN decision-making without being full members. Similarly, whilst England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are often considered countries in their own right, with their own territories, nations, governments, and even football teams, only the UK is an official UN member state.
In practice, most countries have some combination of sovereignty, territory, and one or more national populations, and it’s likely that you’ll know one when you see one. Can you think of any other countries which don’t necessarily satisfy all of the requirements above?
- Province vs Region
The meaning of these two terms is fuzzy, and they are often used differently depending on the context.
In Ancient Rome, a province was a part of the Roman Empire, located outside of Italy, but ruled by the Romans. For example, Britain, or Britannia as it was then known, was once a Roman Province, as well as large parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Today, however, a province usually refers to a clearly marked area of a country, often with it’s own local or sub-national government which shares sovereign powers with the national government. For example, Argentina is divided into twenty-three provinces, whilst Buenos Aires has its own special status as the capital city.
Slightly confusingly, a region is used to describe an area that can be both larger or smaller than a country. Within a country, we might use the word ‘region’ to describe a roughly defined geographical area, such as the Northwest of England, or East Anglia. However, the term is often also used to describe much larger areas that include several countries, often with similar physical or human characteristics, such as the Indian Ocean region, the Sahara, or the Arctic.
What do you research?
"I explore how climate change is affecting small island states. Over the past four years, I have travelled to three different island countries - Fiji, Tuvalu and Seychelles – to investigate climate change. I am interested in what the future might look like for islands threatened by rising sea levels".
How is climate change causing sea levels to rise?
“Human activity is changing our environment. From burning fossils, changing farming practices and deforestation, humanity has been responsible for the increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Over time, this growth in atmospheric greenhouse gases causes an increase in the Earth’s temperature which in turn leads to rising sea levels. Firstly, as ice sheets and glaciers melt, more water enters the oceans. Secondly, as the ocean increases in temperature, it also expands in volume.
According to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (2019), global mean sea levels have risen between 0.12m and 0.21m in the period between 1902 and 2015. Although this might not sound like much, the rate of sea level rise has accelerated in recent decades. Between 2006 and 2015, the sea level rose by about 3.6mm per year!
It’s also worth noting that sea levels are not rising at the same rate around the world, in some areas such as in the South Pacific, sea levels are rising at three times the global average. This poses many problems for human settlements, road and ports in coastal areas, deltas and on islands”.
What is an atoll state? And why does climate change pose a threat?
“Atolls are low-lying coral reef islands that are found in the tropics. Typically, the islands surround a central piece of water called a lagoon. Charles Darwin first theorised about how atoll islands form!
‘Atoll states’ describes a country that’s territory is mostly formed from atolls, there are four UN members that fulfil this criteria – Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands. Tokelau consists of three atolls, but it is a dependent territory of New Zealand. These countries work together through a group called the Coalition of Low-Lying Atoll Nations on Climate Change.
Climate change poses multiple threats for atoll states. As they’re only a few metres above sea level, predictions for sea level rise in the 21st century mean that may be fully submerged in the future. Sea level rise poses other problems… it makes these islands more vulnerable to storm surges and saltwater contamination can make agriculture difficult. It also means that their coastlines are more vulnerable to erosion.
More broadly, climate change is going to increase water insecurity. These islands depend on rainwater for their needs – and this rainfall is becoming more variable in the future. As well, climate change could lead to more powerful tropical storms affecting places like Tuvalu, causing more damage and putting lives and people at risk. New tropical diseases could spread to new areas and coral reefs are under stress from ocean acidification (where oceans become more acidic) and increasing ocean temperatures.”
Will this mean that these countries disappear?
“Not necessarily! Islanders from places like Tuvalu and Kiribati want to remain on their islands. They are pursuing a range of forms of climate change adaptation. Adaptation involves altering existing systems, processes and places in order to cope with changes in the physical environment. For example, the Tuvaluan Coastal Adaptation project is protecting vulnerable coastline in Tuvalu against sea level rise by building a sea wall.
Other forms of adaptation might focus on something like agriculture, so introducing salt-resistant or drought-resistant crops that can cope with the changing environmental conditions.
If things continue to get worse, there has been some discussion of building artificial islands or much larger land reclamation projects. Leaders in Kiribati have been discussing the Temaiku Project, a plan to reclaim a large amount of the lagoon to house up to 30,000 people! This reclaimed land would be elevated above the height of the current islands to protect people.
Internationally, the leaders and diplomats of small island states are engaging in diplomacy to try and increase global ambition to tackle the causes of climate change. In 2015, the world’s countries came together to try and tackle climate change and created the Paris Agreement. Under the Paris Agreement, countries are attempting to try and keep the global temperature increase in the 21st century well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, with an aim to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees. Ambitious action on climate change gives places like Tuvalu and Kiribati a much better chance at survival – some activists from islands have championed the “1.5 to stay alive” slogan in their protests.”
What does this mean for people affected by climate change?
“So, sea level rise occurs relatively slowly - but people are already being affected. In low-lying island communities, people are already starting to notice that King Tides (exceptionally high tides which occur a few times a year) are getting higher.
In 2015, Tropical Cyclone Pam affected over half of Tuvalu’s population and caused an estimated US$10 million worth of damage in the country. Moreover, in 2011, Tuvalu nearly ran out of freshwater during a drought. These environmental stresses are difficult to adapt to as many atoll states are among the poorest countries on Earth.
People do not want to leave their home islands, but they may be forced to migrate if environmental conditions get worse. I think that people will try to adapt themselves, but there may be limits to what is possible in some island communities. Whilst international researchers have discussed the idea of climate migration, this has been rejected by the island governments in places like Tuvalu. Kiribati for a while was talking about “Migration with Dignity”, a plan to help enable people to migrate if they wanted to. However, this was unpopular with the population and the new government is not pursuing migration as a solution to climate change.”
Is this definitely going to happen?
“No! Not necessarily! Hopefully, the global community can act on climate change, move towards renewable energy and reduced global increases in temperature. However, currently, it remains unclear if enough will be done to tackle climate change. As well, some scientists argue that atolls are responding faster to climate change than previously thought – with evidence suggesting they may be growing. However, this is highly controversial and has been rejected by islanders such as the former Prime Minister of Tuvalu – Enele Sopoaga.”
Images taken by Liam Saddington during fieldwork.
Can islands adapt?
Many leaders in small island states are trying to save their countries. In these videos, we can see two very different approaches which attempt to adapt to rising sea levels.
Are these projects possible? Is there the engineering capability to build these floating islands? Who should pay for these projects?
If you take a look at Google Maps, you’ll be able to see all the countries of the world. But could one ever just disappear because of climate change?
Climate change means that the world is getting hotter, polar icecaps are melting, and sea levels are rising, which could lead to flooding and other negative impacts. Many countries are trying to slow those consequences down but are they doing enough..?
Diplomacy and its role in climate change politics
When multiple countries try to tackle climate change issues together, something called ‘diplomacy’ becomes increasingly important. Broadly, diplomacy can be defined as ‘the art and science of maintaining peaceful relationships between nations, groups or individuals’ (source).
In the context of climate change politics, this tends to involve a series of strategic discussions and negotiations between world leaders or representatives from different countries (known as ‘ambassadors’ or ‘envoys’). Each representative will seek to serve their own country’s interests whilst trying to work collaboratively with other nations. A very famous example of this is the Paris Agreement. This involved 196 countries coming together in 2015 to create some rules on how everyone can help to limit climate change, particularly by reducing fuel emissions which heat up the global temperature. Every country who has signed up to the Paris Agreement has to periodically report on what they are doing.
The Agreement also says that signed-up countries should be setting a good example, and they should help those in other nations who are suffering because of climate change which includes giving them financial assistance. To read more about the other key aims and decisions reached by the countries involved, click here.
The Agreement hit the headlines in 2020 when then-US President Donald Trump said America was not going to be part of it any more. Joe Biden said immediately that if he became president he would sign the USA straight back into it again, which he did in February 2021. Science YouTuber Simon Clark discusses this historical event in the video below along with other news related to climate change to keep an eye on:
Are countries playing their part?
Professor Benito Mueller, the managing director of Oxford Climate Policy, thinks it’s good that the USA returned to the Paris Agreement, but wants to see other countries also step up and lead on climate change.
“I think Europe can be a force for good in this whole game,” he says. He came to the field of research via his expertise in philosophy, when he worked with developing countries to help them in negotiations around climate policy.
Professor Mueller isn’t the biggest fan of the Paris Agreement because he thinks it could go further. Nevertheless, he thinks it’s important that it exists and so many countries are signed up.
“It's the only international agreement we have which deals with the matter [of climate change],” he says. “And the problem with climate change is it is a truly global issue. No single country, no matter how large, can solve it on their own - not America, not the EU, not China, which means we need to collaborate”
He says that the Kyoto Protocol – an older agreement about climate change – had more substance to it because it had targets that countries had to meet. In comparison, the Paris Agreement allows countries to set their own targets and policies.
“Having said that,” he points out, “very few countries actually want to be shown not to comply with what they said they would do. There’s a certain sort of psychology behind it, most countries will try to actually do what they said they would do.”
Professor Mueller says he tries to ignore any made-up claims that climate change does not exist because they are simply not true. But he is sure that some leaders of countries, who do not want to work with others, might take on those sceptical views.
Could a country disappear?
Professor Mueller thinks it’s possible for countries to disappear, both economically and literally, due to climate change. Small island nations are largely dependent on farming. If the weather changes dramatically or fields are flooded, they won’t be able to do that work or export their goods.
He points to the problems faced by Haiti after repeatedly being struck by natural disasters.
“Look at how they have had to struggle under the recent spate of hurricanes,” he says. “I mean, they've just managed to get up again where they were, and then [another] hurricane [comes] and…they don’t grow. Every single hurricane season destroys half the economy.”
It isn’t just about having heavier rainfall or the sun shining more in particular countries; natural disasters such as flooding will destroy people’s homes permanently and they will have nowhere to
live. Then the world is faced with an additional problem of hundreds or thousands of homeless people needing shelter.
“It's not just a matter of having a worse quality of life…it's a matter of being in a refugee camp, basically,” says Professor Mueller.
What is one of the biggest challenges in trying to get countries to work together?
Professor Mueller doesn’t think the human race will necessarily disappear because of climate change but he does think that many people will suffer unfairly for the actions of others.
“The people who have contributed the least [to climate change] are hit the most severely,” he says. “That's the big challenge. We have to stop the climate changing any further, obviously…but that's not all there is to it.”
Smaller countries with low-income economies may want to exploit their natural resources. For example, they may want to mine coal if they have that available. But from the experience of higher-income economies, that isn’t a good idea because of the pollution and emissions that come from both mining it and burning it as fuel.
Professor Mueller thinks that telling these countries what they can and can’t do – especially when other countries have been doing it for centuries – might not be well received. Instead, these countries need to be treated fairly, and given help and support when required, which can include extra funding, just as the Paris Agreement points out.
“What we really cannot afford as a globe is for smaller countries with less developed economies to follow in our footsteps - and to tell them [not to] just like that is pretty unfair, because we did it, right?” he asks rhetorically. “They might just say, ‘We'll do it anyway’, and this we have to avoid. We are dependent on the goodwill of smaller countries, because together they're still a sizable proportion [of the world].”
What do you think? Should all countries have tougher environmental targets to meet? How should these vary according to the size and economy of a country, if at all? And can you think of any other ways to encourage countries to work together?
Mythical and disappearing places in literature and culture
More than 2000 years ago, Plato created the legend of Atlantis. Today, we’re still fascinated by lost worlds and the legends live on, in many different forms. How many places may be lurking out there, still left for us to uncover and how have they appeared (then disappeared!) in our culture throughout time?
- Atlantis, Plato
A dialogue in Philosophy is a written text in which two characters are shown as having a conversation with each other. The myth of the lost island of Atlantis appears in two of Plato’s dialogues: Timaeus and Critias. Whether Atlantis really existed is up for debate. In Plato’s dialogue, Critias tells the story which he heard from his great-grandfather that heard it from the Athenian sage Solon who heard it from Egyptian priests… it seems pretty reliable, doesn’t it? It also doesn’t help that he claims the island is founded by the sea god Poseidon and one of his mortal lovers.
The story goes like this: Atlantis is a prosperous island, larger than Lybia and Asia (at least the parts that the Ancient Greeks knew about!), which wants for nothing. It has plenty of riches, exotic animals and impressive palaces. More importantly, the people are kind and humble. But this doesn’t last for long, as they soon turn to wicked ways and try to attack the city of Athens. The good Athenians win the war and the people of Atlantis are punished: their island is shattered by an earthquake and is washed under the sea, vanishing forever. This story might have been inspired by various earthquakes or calamities of the time, but it equally sounds similar to other mythical stories about floods, like the legends of Deucalion or Noah.
Could the tale of Atlantis be another warning about the dangers of immorality and arrogance? Or are there actual ruins of a lush civilisation, lurking somewhere in the unexplored depths of the sea?
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
The fascination with the myth of Atlantis remains so alive that Disney came up with an animation for the adapted story in 2001! Atlantis: The Lost Empire tries to imagine a world in which the people of the sunken island survived under the sea, shielded by a magical barrier created by a powerful crystal, the Heart of Atlantis.
Milo, a janitor working in a museum, is fascinated by the story and knows about a possible way to find Atlantis. At first discouraged by scholars telling him the search for the island is a lost cause, Milo manages to find a team of explorers willing to join him in his quest. However, just like in Plato’s original story, the world is almost destroyed when one of Milo’s crew mates plans to steal the magic crystal and use it for his personal gain. Without the crystal, the people of Atlantis would perish under the sea. This story, too, could be seen as a reminder that the greatest danger to such a prosperous, beautiful world is not a flood, outside of our control, but actually human greed.
- Utopia, Thomas More
You might have heard the word utopia many times, when it’s used to describe a world that is close to perfect, where all of its citizens are happy— so much so that it seems too good to be true. The word comes from Thomas More’s book, published in 1516. (Its full title is “A little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in the new island Utopia", but it’s easy to see
why that didn’t catch on!) Thomas More studied at the University of Oxford and was a trusted civil servant of Henry VIII. Perhaps he found something pretty disappointing in the politics of the time, as his description of the island Utopia, a place where people live rationally, in harmony, sharing their property with each other, can be interpreted as a satire, i.e. a piece of writing that criticises ideas in a funny, ironic way.
The clue is in the name: utopia sounds similar to the Greek ou-topos, meaning ‘no place’. It can also be associated with ‘eu-topos’, meaning ‘a good place’. Is More trying to imply that it’s impossible for such a good place ever to exist?
Books and movies in our time have been centred more and more on the opposite of an utopia: ‘dystopian’ worlds like the ones in George Orwell’s famous 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (as well as The Giver, Divergent… the list can go on). Could an utopia actually hide inside it the seeds that might turn it into a dystopia, an undesirable, nightmare of a world?
This mythical island situated off the Irish coast is said to be shrouded in mist, impossible to find, except on one day every seven years, when it becomes visible. The tales of Hy-Brasil sightings have sent a few European explorers in search for this elusive location. Its existence was even documented on maps from 1325 up until the 19th century!
The name 'Hy-Brasil' comes from the Irish word 'Breasal', meaning High King of the World. The inhabitants are said to be either Irish mythological creatures and gods or an advanced civilization led by monks and priests.
The idea of islands that are impossible for humans to reach is more widely explored in literature, too. In Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, for example, which explores the mythology he created for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Valinor is the land of the Valar, called “gods” by the Men of Middle Earth. Before the war, Valinor could be reached from Arda (the Earth, in Tolkien’s legendarium). Afterwards, the Valar removed their land beyond the Shadowy Seas and men could no longer reach Valinor.
Are we always drawn to stories about things almost nobody can reach?
The story of the mythical Buddhist kingdom of Shambhala has its origins in early Buddhist texts. Translated as “place of tranquillity”, Shambala is a place where everyone has reached enlightenment, isolated from the rest of the world somewhere between the Himalaya Mountains and the Gobi Desert.
This myth has fascinated the West for centuries: the band Three Dog Night have a hit song called “Shambala”, while British author James Hilton drew inspiration from it for his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Written in the years between the World Wars, the novel told of an isolated place in Tibet, almost like a paradise, called Shangri-La. It was then adapted into a successful movie.
Stories like this seem to strike a chord with our desire to be isolated from a world in which pain and sorrow exist. It is an idea vastly explored in cultures all around the world. The Peach
Blossom Spring is a poem written in times of political instability by Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, describing a secrete passage through a grotto into an isolated world where everyone lives in harmony. It was written in 421, more than a thousand years before the word utopia even existed.
While cultures closer to the sea, such as Greece, may have myths like the one of the sunken island of Atlantis, Islam has its own mythical place, called Iram or Iram of the Pillars. Instead of disappearing beneath the sea, this “Atlantis of the Sands”—as it was called by Lawrence of Arabia— is said to have been buried somewhere beneath the sands of the Rub’ al-Khali desert. In the Qur’an, the story is told that King Shaddad, defying Allah, was punished together with the rest of the city for their wickedness.
In the West, the story of Iram was made known through the tales of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
In the ‘90s, the city of Ubar was uncovered in Oman. Whether Ubar and Iram are the same place is still debated, but it might mean there could be many more hidden places still waiting to be uncovered!
- The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and actually, out of the seven, only one of them still exists today: the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Not much is known about the gardens— in fact, they might have never even existed! Archaeologists can’t agree about who built them and there is even debate about whether they were really ‘hanging’ gardens or if they were simply placed on the rooftop of a ziggurat, a temple in the form of a pyramid with steps. They might have required and used a very novel system of irrigation and they must have certainly been impressive for that time, in order to gain their long-lasting fame!
What would be the wonders of our modern world and what can we do to protect them from perishing like their ancient counterparts?
What the law says...
As you can see from the diagram above, there are various different zones that determine the powers a country has over its surrounding waters. These are:
Territorial Sea: This refers to the 12 nautical miles that are regarded as belonging to a country.
Contiguous Zone: This refers to a band of water extending from the Territorial Sea to 24 nautical miles from the coast. Here a country can exercise control to ensure its laws on certain areas like immigration or customs are upheld.
Exclusive Economic Zone: This extends 200 nautical miles from the coast of a country. States have rights to exploit marine resources in this area.
But what happens if an island disappears? Or the coastline is flooded?
Ambulatory vs. historic baselines
Conventionally, countries have taken an 'ambulatory baseline' approach when measuring their coastlines. This approach recognises that, as sea levels rise and fall, so too does the position of a country's coastline, and therefore the corresponding limits of a country's territorial sea and exclusive economic zone.
However, as the rate of global sea level rise increases, some countries, including several Pacific Islands, have been arguing for the use of 'historic baselines'. This involves fixing the position of a coastline in place according to current or historic sea levels. For small island states, this would mean that, even if large parts of their coastlines were flooded or whole islands become submerged, governments would still have sovereignty over the same ocean territory and maritime resources. This would allow them to continue to support their economies, for example through fishing revenues.
This change in international law would require the agreement over other coastal states who are also part of the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas, and not all countries agree on the issue, particularly those who could stand to gain from exploiting the maritime resources of sinking small island states.
What do you think? Should we let small island states continue to use historic baselines?
E-countries: how is the Internet changing what it means to be a country?
Estonia now has over 99% of its services available online, you can be an e-Resident and vote online! However, this online presence also has risks – especially with cyber security. In 2007, Estonia suffered a massive cyberattack. However, Estonia has sought to protect itself with a data embassy and a NATO training base for cybersecurity. Are the benefits worth the risk? What do you think?
Could a country | disappear?Vote now