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Dr Kate Purcell

Dr Kate Purcell is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology, Sydney. She completed her studies in law at the University of Cambridge (PhD), University of Oxford (BCL), and University of New South Wales (LLB Hons). Geographical Change and the Law of the Sea is based on the author's doctoral thesis, which was awarded the Cambridge Law Faculty's Yorke Prize in 2015.




Geographical Change and the Law of the Sea (OUP 2019)

Book Blurb: This book examines the implications of geographical change for maritime jurisdiction under the law of the sea. In a multistranded intervention, it challenges existing accounts of the consequences of climate-related change for entitlement to maritime space, maritime limits, and international maritime boundaries. It also casts new light on the question of whether a loss of habitable land and large-scale population displacement will precipitate a loss of territorial sovereignty and the legal 'extinction' of affected States. This study of the legal significance of geographical change is grounded in an in-depth study of the role of geography in the law of the sea. As well as offering a new perspective on the pressing question of how climate change will affect maritime jurisdiction, territorial sovereignty, and statehood, the book contributes to the scholarship on maritime delimitation and international boundaries generally (on land and at sea). It includes an analysis of the principle of intertemporal law that suggests a useful framework for considering questions of stability and change in international law more broadly. This rigorous and original study will be of value to anyone concerned with the implications of climate-related change for maritime jurisdiction, territorial sovereignty, and statehood. Its broader analysis of the existing law and engagement with a range of doctrinal debates through the lens of the question of geographical change will be of interest to scholars and practitioners of the law of the sea, the law of territory, and the law relating to international boundaries.


What made you write on this topic?

We’re living in an age of climate breakdown. The ways in which we order the world through law have a part to play in this—they have contributed to climate change and are impacted by it. Before starting my PhD, I’d read several articles by scholars concerned that physical changes to the coast associated with climate change would necessitate the relocation of maritime limits. I was interested in this apparently tight correspondence between geographical and legal change: how and why would the law grant geography this degree of determinism in relation to legal rights and boundaries? I concluded through my research that it does not—though the law of the sea and the law of territory do make use of geographical and cartographical objects and concepts in more complicated and fascinating ways.


How long did it take to produce your book from initial conception to publication?

The book is based on my PhD, which I completed in 2013. It took me another six years to write the book, partly because I significantly expanded its focus, partly because I was working on other projects, and partly because I had a wonderful and wonderfully distracting baby (now six).


What is the most difficult part about writing for you?

Knowing when to stop. It is possible to revise indefinitely.


Why should people read your book?

My book contests what has been called the ‘ambulatory thesis’—this idea that maritime limits and some types of maritime boundaries must shift with coastal change. I argue that the role of geography in the law is consistent with and contributes to the stability of entitlement to maritime space as well as maritime limits and boundaries. I have also argued that neither territory nor statehood can be lost solely as a result of geographical change—for example, the submersion of islands, including in cases where the island/s constitute the whole territory of the state. These arguments are of immediate relevance to the challenges facing small island states and coastal states generally in the context of climate change.

The book includes an in-depth analysis of the role of geomorphology in connection with entitlement to and the delimitation of the continental shelf. This has been the subject of scholarly debate and interstate disputes, and I hope my analysis contributes productively to both.


What book is currently on your bedside table?

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade and Robert Macfarlane’s Underland.


What are you working on now?

I began this book thinking about the impact of climate-related change on maritime jurisdiction, territorial sovereignty, and statehood. While writing it, I became increasingly interested in how these legal concepts and associated practices produce and reproduce certain types of relations between humans and the more-than-human world. I’m now exploring other aspects of the question of how human relations with the more-than-human world are conceived and enacted, and how this contributes to the climate and biodiversity crisis. My hope is that this kind of work might tell us something about what else is possible.