Earth Law and Coastal Communities

Reader Contribution by Darlene May Lee and Earth Law Center
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Image from One Shared Ocean

It turns out that four out of ten people in the world – about 2.4 billion people – live in coastal areas. UN Sustainable Development, Ocean Fact Sheet, June 2017.

The Issue

Over the past 100 years, the global sea level rise has accelerated with current rates the fastest they have ever been in nearly 3,000 years. UN Sustainable Development, Ocean Fact Sheet, June 2017.

Scientists conservatively estimate that, by the end of the century, sea levels will rise by at least a meter on average. The first cause comes from the melting of ice sheets due to rising temperatures. Less ice means fewer reflective surfaces and higher temperatures, which in turn causes more melting and fewer reflective surfaces and so on. Scientific American, How is worldwide sea level rise driven by melting arctic ice? June 2017.

The second cause of rising sea levels comes from a simple property of water – as the water heats up, it expands. In the last two decades, changes in ocean temperature have contributed approximately 30% to the global mean sea level, whereas total land ice mass loss contributed twice as much at 60%: Science, Sea-level rise and its impact on coastal zones, Nicholls and Cazenave, 2010

The impacts of rising sea levels on coastal communities are not hard to imagine. Not only will the size of habitats decrease, an inevitable consequence will be a shrinkage in biological diversity. More species will face threats of extinction due to the added stress from their rapidly changing environments. Rising sea levels will also eliminate sandy beaches. These are critical nesting site areas for subsets of marine life, such as sea turtles and other endangered marine species. NOAA Sanctuaries.

This doesn’t even include the potential impact on farmland, property, and infrastructure once seawater breaches inland.

Part of the Solution

The coast of Blavand Beach in Jylland, Denmark by Christian Kortum @Creative Commons

The Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas was officially launched at EARTHx in April 2018. The framework provides guidelines and a template to strengthen preservation and restoration of critical coastal habitats – both now and for future generations.

ELC helps communities to obtain legal recognition for the human right to healthy environments and an environment’s own right to be healthy. Marine Protected Areas conserve and protect ocean ecosystems. The team at Earth Law Center has created a legal framework for Marine Protected Areas that ensure our oceans have the right to life, health and well-being, diversity of life, water, clean air, equilibrium, restoration, and representation.

An Earth Law approach not only addresses the direct impacts on ocean wildlife but also extends to make it a legal responsibility for ocean-dependent industries to adopt holistically sustainable practices, supporting long-term ecosystem and economic stability and growth.

An Earth-systems approach, which builds upon the traditional “resource management” approach, explicitly provides a legal mandate to manage and protect marine ecosystems – including humans who live and rely on them. We can evolve to a new model of growth and development, respecting the basic rights of all species and ecosystems.

How you can get involved today: Read more about the Earth Law Center approach to ocean rightshere. Sign up for our monthly newsletterhere. Volunteer for the ocean program area. Donate here.


Darlene May Lee
 is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, which works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. She works to build a force of advocates for nature’s rights at the local, state, national, and international levels. Connect with Earth Law Center on TwitterFacebookand LinkedIn. Read all of Darlene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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