Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 22
The Shores of Kiribati. Source: WikiMedia Commons
Palauan legend tells of an insatiable giant who continuously ate but soon exhausted the resources of his caretakers. The villagers had no choice but to eventually try to slay him. The giant, upon finding out, recognized how his greed had nearly starved those who had raised him and chose to give the people a gift. His body shattered into hundreds of pieces and where they landed into the ocean, the islands of Palau formed. This tale of insatiability parallels our world today, and just as the giant’s hunger had consequences, so too do our actions affect climate change which actively threatens communities and countries, like Palau, in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Such island countries face three major problems stemming from climate change: rising seas, extreme weather, and ecosystem degradation. The small size of many island nations magnifies the predicament posed by climate change, and as they attempt creative solutions, perhaps the most potentially successful is also one of the more drastic.
The most salient problem affecting island nations in regard to climate change is rising sea levels. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sea levels since 1992 have been rising at roughly three millimeters annually, and this rate has been increasing as ice caps melt. Entire countries like Kiribati could be fully underwater by the end of the century according to the highest estimates of sea-level rise. The Marshall Islands is an exceptionally low-lying country, with its highest point standing a mere ten meters above sea level, which leaves it particularly vulnerable to rising seas. The journal Science Advances predicts other countries like the Maldives could be fully uninhabitable by the middle of the century. In a more immediate sense, rising sea levels could salinate already scarce sources of drinking water, creating water crises in these ocean-based communities far sooner.
Even islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans that are not as vulnerable to rising sea levels face challenges from extreme weather. The NOAA reports that regional temperatures hit record highs for three consecutive years, and global weather patterns have responded. In the Pacific, many countries face more intense cyclones and prolonged droughts which affect food security, infrastructure, and housing. King tides, or high tides of exceptional height that typically occur a few times a year, have become more frequent, causing more damage than in previous years and increasing infrastructure restoration requirements. Even though rising sea levels threaten fresh-water sources in the long run, floods caused by major storms could easily overwhelm fresh-water supplies of smaller countries in the coming years.
Aside from the threat of rising sea levels and floods, the ecosystems upon which many of these communities rely on are under threat, creating a more indirect but equally damaging effect of climate change. According to National Geographic, coral reefs which are home to sea life that helps sustain island communities are bleaching due to warmer oceanic surface temperatures, a harbinger of declining reef health and increased scarcity of fish, crab, and other sources of food. Coral reefs and fisheries are significant to the survival of Pacific and Indian Ocean countries, not only for sustenance but also for tourism, which is now slated to fall in the coming decades due to climate change, further damaging future prospects for citizens of these countries. A 2018 paper in the journal Marine Policy outlines how small-scale fisheries employing about 100,000 people in the West and South Pacific are under threat from climate change. In countries of only several thousand, with economies and life based around the sea, ecosystem degradation affects basic survival.
The island nations cannot wait for the politics of larger countries. Many island countries have begun implementing measures to confront and adapt to climate change, some of which could have larger implications for other threatened regions of the world. According to the German Society for International Cooperation, Vanuatu has begun raising heat-tolerant pigs and increasing solar power adoption for activities related to coral reef farming. The Tongan Ministry of Food and Agriculture has developed a climate-change focus in its 2015 Framework for Action on Food Security. These are concrete steps to battle climate change and can be adapted to other countries as needed. Affected island states are also incorporating climate change considerations into economic development plans and education curriculums. Expanding these efforts to other affected island nations, when combined with practices like coral reef farming and livestock genetic engineering, could provide more time for these island states to come up with a longer-run solution.
As effective as these measures are, they do not effectively solve the underlying issue for governments in regard to climate change: that it threatens their populations and does not present a viable solution to climate change itself. In the absence of a consolidated global approach, the latter will not be solved in time to protect these island nations, but there are long-term approaches that some countries are already considering. Fiji has begun exploring the feasibility of relocating its entire population. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees published a report on the effects of climate change on low-lying islands, specifically discussing internal migration in countries like Kiribati and Papua New Guinea (it recently implemented internal relocation from the Carteret Islands in its domain). Long-run economic futures over the course of decades could be better secured through population relocation, especially if the population moves to an area more protected from the sea geographically that is in more temperate climates. This is not an easy task and the very first question of “where would we go?” immediately introduces an obstacle. There will be major logistical and cultural barriers to surmount, but the end goal would be well worth the trouble for these endangered people. Many of these island states are already recipients of aid from the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia, and this aid could be used to explore relocation opportunities.
Without a consolidated global approach to climate change, it is likely that Pacific and Indian Ocean islands will continue to face problems in the future, but their situation is not hopeless. Short term solutions will help them buy time, but it will take significant action, perhaps through relocation, to escape the giant that is climate change.