Tuvalu, Kiribati, Palau, the Maldives…
Chances are you may not have ever heard of some these countries. And unfortunately, thanks to climate change, you may not need to know them for much longer. These countries, along with a slew of other island nations and coastal communities around the world, are likely to be the first absolute victims of climate change, completely losing their territories and/or livelihoods. Increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing sea levels to rise, ocean water to acidify, rain levels to decrease, soil salinity to increase and coral bleaching to occur. All of which threaten the livelihoods of island nations. For the first time in modern history, entire countries are likely to be eliminated; not due to political conflict, but because their territory becomes uninhabitable.
According to the EPA, sea levels have already risen eight inches since 1870, and conservative estimates predict a rise of another 8-16 inches by the end of this century (other organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, predict a sea level rise anywhere from 16-56 inches by 2100). With some countries measuring their highest elevation just a few meters above sea level, a rise of that magnitude could put much of the country underwater. According to lead climate scientist Michael Mann, some island nations may need to evacuate within a decade.
Sea level rise is not the only threat to these island nations. Even countries that may be able to protect their coastlines from rising tides are facing other pressures from climate change. In most of these countries, the primary food supply comes from the sea, with islanders spend their days fishing and foraging in shallow waters to find enough food to feed themselves and sell for other necessities. As the ocean continues to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere, the pH level of the water is decreasing. This ocean acidification makes it harder for shell-forming organisms, such as clams, oysters and corals, to build their shells. Rising sea temperatures are also forcing some fish species to migrate away from the tropical islands to cooler waters farther from the equator. These forces combined have resulted in noticeably smaller catches for islanders in recent years, and studies are predicting that this trend will only get worse in the coming decade.
While many nations are focusing on adaptation to the rising tides and changing environment, others are recognizing its limits. Seawalls constructed from coral and concrete often collapse under the ongoing pressure of the tide, and their cost can be prohibitive for the small island nations (the seawall for one Marshall Island atoll could cost up to US$100 million, more than twice the wealth that the country produces annually). Changing food sources is also unaffordable in many cases – a can of Spam on some islands can cost more than $10.
With this reality, leaders of these countries are facing a dilemma. Should they remain on their territory, and deal with the rising seas and diminishing availability of food and water? Or attempt to move, risking loss of culture, heritage and statehood? The solutions being considered are as unique to history as the problem itself. The government of Kiribati recently purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji for a reported $9.6 million, and the current president is considering relocating all of the I-Kiribati (as the 103,000 citizens of Kiribati are called) to this new territory if Kiribati becomes uninhabitable. Other states are focusing on individual relocation, sending new generations to Australia or New Zealand as immigrants to begin new lives for themselves and their families.
The threat of disappearance of these countries is a growing issue, and one that needs urgent attention. Small island states have joined politically to form AOSIS, the Association of Small Island States, which works to raise the concerns of the island nations at climate change negotiations and in the international arena. Given the speed that sea levels are expected to rise (and the dragging speed of current climate negotiations), however, relying on international negotiations may not be adequate to save these countries. Financial and technological support is needed to help these countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, and the countries of the world will soon need to seriously address the growing issue of incorporating climate refugees.
Image Credit: Saint-Louis de Marie-Galante via Wikimedia Commons.