Disappearing Islands

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy in early November, Bloomberg Businessweek published a striking cover photo of an inundated street in lower Manhattan with a dramatic headline that read, “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID.”  As the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Sandy fades from the public’s attention, the issues of climate change persist, affecting the lives of billions of people around the world. The consequences of climate change are nowhere more visible than in the low-lying islands and littoral states that face extinction due to rising sea levels. From the Seychelles to Vanuatu, Kiribati to the Maldives, small island nations are on the verge of permanently disappearing from the world’s maps.

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The mythological civilisation of Atlantis that many only dreamed of may become the depressing reality for dozens of small island nations who are at risk of losing not only their traditional cultural lifestyles, but also thousands of years of their rich history on this planet. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global sea levels are expected to increase by over 26-59 centimetres within the century. This is attributed to an increase in greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, caused by man-made industrial pollution, which consequently causes the melting of the world’s glaciers and ice caps, as well as a rise in overall sea levels. These figures, however, depend on the global levels of precipitation and snow packs, as well as an increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades.

Within international climate relations, a trifurcation of nations is developing over states’ capacities to respond to changes in the Earth’s climate. ‘First Tier’ nations include those wealthy nations who can afford to help their citizens adapt to rising temperatures in the Earth’s atmosphere, and who have the technological and financial capabilities to address increased environmental degradation. ‘Second Tier’ nations entail poor, developing nations that are unable to help their populations cope with the consequences of climate change but do not face the prospect of total environmental destruction. Lastly, ‘Third Tier’ nations consist of small states that are likely to disappear entirely within the coming decades as they are threatened by rising sea levels and scarce resources for preventing further flooding.

Simmering anxiety among the island nations’ populations has raised questions over the few options left to tackle the effects of climate change that threaten their very existence. Issues regarding food scarcity, clean drinking water, coastal erosion, and increased typhoon intensity in the Pacific Ocean have led the nations’ leaders to seek alternative methods to address these concerns.

One of the main issues that most of these states face is the threat climate change poses to their food security and economy. The Maldives, which lies off the western coast of India in the Indian Ocean, has a population of nearly 400,000 who rely heavily on the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which accounts for 40% of the state’s overall gross domestic product (GDP). The highest land point in the nation is only 2.4 meters high and a projected increase in sea levels will have a dramatic effect on the country’s tourism industry and overall economy.

Similarly, the acidification of the Earth’s oceans, attributed to an increase in water temperatures and water pollution, has affected the country’s coral reefs and fish stocks. This has not only affected the state’s tourism industries, which rely on aquatic tourism, but also the fishing industries, which account for significant contributions to the states’ economies.  States such as Kiribati, the Maldives, Comoros, and the Marshall Islands now rely more heavily on food imports to feed their populations as the limited agricultural lands they possess continue to flood. Consequently, the over-reliance on food imports has now driven up the islands’ obesity rates, which is associated with a lack of healthy nutritional options for the islands’ populations.

Questions also arise as to how to divvy up the state’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which establishes a state’s claims to the ocean within 200 nautical miles of its coastline.  The EEZ enables a state to obtain special rights over exploration and use of marine resources from its coastline. As these states slip beneath the ocean, however, are they still entitled to marine resources within their initial EEZ rights?

Additionally, in the event that these states disappear altogether, how will the international community respond to the increase in climate-related refugees? Many states are beginning to answer these questions by reserving a part of the current national revenue for future climate insurance initiatives. Already, small communities in Vanuatu and Kiribati have been forcibly and permanently displaced by rising flood waters.

In the low-lying nation of Kiribati, talks are already underway with the Fiji government over the purchase of 23 square kilometres of land on Fiji’s Vanua Levu Island. This last resort option, outlined by Kiribati’s President Anote Tong, would be used to initially settle Kiribati farmers to cultivate crops and extract earth for the island’s sea defences which rise only a few meters above sea level.

The government of Vanuatu has also been preparing insurance plans for its people through agreements with the New Zealand government. Currently, New Zealand accepts only a small quota of around 750 general refugees per year, which is mandated by the United Nations. An additional 650 citizens from Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Tonga are granted access through education programs and work opportunities in the Pacific Access Category scheme. Many other Pacific island nations, however, face far more stringent immigration obstacles from the Australian and New Zealand governments. Their focus, as former Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell outlined in 2006, is to stand by their Pacific island neighbours by focusing on helping islanders stay in their home countries.

The lack of international action to stem rising sea levels that are causing permanent coastal destruction has left these threatened nations with few options. Several of them have now begun to mull the use of legal action against major global emitters who have indirectly contributed to their states’ impending demise. Within the islands’ coalition, however, some states have voiced concerns about the threat of bringing legal action to the International Court of Justice.  Many of the major greenhouse gas emitters, such as China and the US, provide substantial aid to the islands through funds in education, roads, HIV-AIDS clinics, and other miscellaneous projects. The major emitting states may eventually retaliate against the island nations by cutting off their funding projects.

With fast-developing nations arguing for the right to industrialise their countries before implementing strict controls on their greenhouse gases emissions, and some developed nations being increasingly reluctant to add environmental controls to many of their struggling businesses, any further international consensus to limit the effects of climate change looks difficult to achieve.  Recent political shifts in both China and the United States, however, may provide a glimmer of hope for the international community as the two largest emitting states may finally commit to serious discussions to tackle the deleterious effects of climate change. For now, the water levels continue to rise, threatening the very existence of numerous low-lying nations. As Seychelles Ambassador to the UN Ronny Jumeau stated earlier this year, “How much more can we wait?”