Floating a solution to Pacific problems

Assessing innovative approaches to rising sea levels

Philip Hayward

Environment & energy, Government and governance, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Asia, The Pacific

9 February 2017

Could floating platforms, tethered to existing islands, offer a solution for those Pacific island populations whose homes are threatened by rising sea levels? It’s a possibility worth exploring, Philip Hayward writes.

On the (somewhat unfortunate) date of Friday 13 January 2017, the California-based Seasteading Institute signed what it described as “an historic agreement” with the Government of French Polynesia. This agreement concerned the development of a floating island within the country’s territorial waters.

The Institute’s press release emphasised the project’s “special governing framework” (i.e. the promise of substantial autonomy from the legislative regime of the region that it had negotiated for itself). Trumpeting the floating island as an “innovative special economic zone”, the press release claimed the venture as beneficial to Polynesian youth in that it would deliver “new clean tech and blue economy jobs” to the region.

For those unfamiliar with the history of libertarian attempts to establish various kinds of fixed and floating platforms in offshore waters, the announcement might have seemed novel and exciting. For those more familiar with such histories, the enthusiasm was less evident. The Seasteading Institute, founded in 2008, was substantially informed by previous ventures such as businessman Werner Stiefel’s unsuccessful Operation Atlantis projects in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But unlike the crass and clumsy libertarianism of most of its predecessors, the Institute has cultivated a more technocratic utopian approach and has developed a sense of purpose as an organisational incubator for “start-up” autonomous floating communities that imagine funding themselves through innovative technologies.

But however you spin it, there is a clear problem with any artificial island (or other) society that attempts to set itself up outside of supposedly restrictive governmental rules and practices, such as the derided ‘red tape’ concerning worker and consumer protections and waste management policies that President Trump is so gleefully slashing at present.

More on this: What causes sustained economic growth in Pacific Island economies?

The problem is that once all rules and restraints are removed from projects, others – necessarily – must be developed in some form or another by the project or the putative non-state entity concerned. The necessity of such rules, guidelines and practices on a floating island, moored in ecologically rich Tahitian waters that will inevitably require material and power resources and produce waste, is evident. Escaping nation state structures is not the same as escaping reality.

Here again, history highlights the glitch points. No previous artificial island project has succeeded in establishing a functioning autonomous community within a sovereign nation’s territorial waters.

But although the Tahiti project is likely to be mired in political realities it does, at least, serve to draw attention to the possibilities of technical solutions to environmental problems caused by rising sea levels. While much of French Polynesia is sufficiently elevated as to be relatively untroubled by current increases in sea levels, other areas are not so fortunate. Kiribati (with a population of over 100,000) has the unfortunate status of being the global “canary in the coal mine” with regard to sea level rises and significant areas are likely to be rendered uninhabitable by storm surges in the near future.

Discussion has, to date, largely focused on relocating island populations to more secure (i.e. higher) areas in other Pacific countries. Another option that merits attention, and has the benefit of retaining populations within the marine regions with which they strongly identify and rely upon, is that of installing floating platforms tethered to existing islands. Such structures would have substantial advantages over either attempts to protect islands by seawalls (the breaching of which would prove disastrous for those supposedly protected by them) or by artificially elevating land to a fixed height (when we do not know how high seas will rise and how intense storm surges might be in future). Floating platforms, by definition, have the capacity to ride out such factors.

The problem is – of course – who pays for them. One perspective on this is provided by the potential problems that might be presented by waves of climate change refugees arriving in locations whose governments may not want them. The cost of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ to the arrival of boatloads of asylum seekers in Australia’s territorial waters, inaugurated during John Howard’s prime ministership, is commonly estimated at well over $1 billion dollars.

Investment of even a fraction of that in the development of ingenious, low-environmental impact platforms for low-lying Pacific islands might well be both economically prudent for border protectionist Pacific nations and substantially benefit low-lying Pacific island societies. In this regard, the Seasteading Institute’s Tahiti project is literally and figuratively misplaced. Concentrated investment and innovative design can make significant impacts on Pacific communities if applied in the appropriate manner. The benefits of organisations attempting to enact pre-constituted agendas in the Pacific are far less obvious.

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One Response

  1. Seasteading Supporter says:

    The initial Seasteads are floating platforms in a special economic zone. By definition special economic zones exist in someone else’s territory but offer more favorable economic and/or political conditions than the surrounding territory, for example with lower import duties. They do not offer full political autonomy. Therefore comments about full political autonomy and lack of rules are both uninformed and moot.

    Regarding environmental degradation, the Seasteads in French Polynesia are required by the governing law to not pollute, and are expected to be powered from a combination of renewable energy and local power, such as grid-tied photovoltaic, wind and wave power.

    Seasteads will be funded by investors, not the host nation or taxpayers.

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