Does a sliding border matter?

Posted on September 3, 2009 by elcaworldhunger

A lot of what I hear about climate change involves catastrophic statements about what will happen. Sea levels will rise, plunging cities and coastlines under water. Desertification will increase, causing human migration and wars over water. Severity and frequency of storms will increase, causing countless forms of destruction. And of course, the poorest, who have the fewest resources for adaptation, will suffer the most.

It’s all very scary, but it is also often tempered by future verb tenses and debate over the predictions’ plausibility. Even though the weather here in Chicago has been unusual this summer, it may just be a natural fluctuation. Besides, even if the climate is changing, Manhattan isn’t under water yet. It’s a slow process and no one can really predict how bad it will be. We have time.

Or perhaps not. Manhattan may not be under water, but Italy and Switzerland are moving. It seems the border between the two countries, established in 1861, was set along the ridge of a glacier. Now the glacier is melting, and so the line is moving. Climate change – happening right now – is changing the defined territories of two countries. 

Luckily, this particular case is not catastrophic, which I’m guessing is why I didn’t run across it as a front page headline. As reported by Discovery News, “Since the affected demarcation line runs through uninhabited peaks 13,000 feet above sea level, the measure would not force changes in citizenship.” In addition, it’s not happening on a highly valuable bit of land, and both countries have functional governments. So the politicians on both sides have very reasonably agreed to redraw the border, and have set in place a plan to deal with future changes. It would appear to be no big deal.

The understated reporting of this story (or did I just miss it?) surprises me. The issues and implications here are so potentially explosive. If it’s happening in Europe, where else? Where else in the world might climate change affect one country’s border with another? What happens to citizens living along the line? What happens when that line runs over an oil field, or a valuable rain forest, or a sacred burial ground? What happens when the countries involved do not have stable economies and rational governance? And even hate each other?

For now, the threat of climate-related issues do not appear to be obvious or imminent enough to compete with other problems. But as the climate change debates continue, I wonder what constitutes a winning argument. This particular border example – with so few consequences – isn’t enough.  How much drama will it take to really get our attention?

-Nancy Michaelis