Climate Change and Vulnerable Pacific Islands

The impacts of unchecked, unstopped global warming are serious for us North Americans, but they pale in comparison to what’s ahead for life in some other parts of the world.

In the United States and Canada, the impacts include (to name just a few):

  • rising sea levels that erode shorelines, thus endangering coastal homes and communities;
  • massive reductions in polar bear populations, and possible extinction of the impressive northern creature in some places;
  • increases in the number and severity of hurricanes, heavy rainfall and other extreme weather events; and
  • brutal, crippling droughts and high susceptibility to wildfires.

The U.S. and its northern neighbor are more fortunate than most other countries in a significant way: wealth. Poor countries are going to suffer far more because they’ll be largely unable to meet the needs of hordes of climate-change refugees seeking food, shelter and health care. Likely it will be a scene of anguish and misery in (for example) poor Uganda.


But the worst predicaments will belong to those countries that global warming will, in effect, erase – including small, little-talked-about island groups in the Pacific Ocean. One member of this category is Kiribati, 100,000 people living on 33 low-lying islands located just north of the equator.

Kiribati-Coatofarms“A few years ago [climate change] was not taken very seriously,” one of Kiribati’s parliamentarians recently told an Australian newspaper journalist. “But now quite a few villages are experiencing hardship. Beaches are eroding, houses are falling down, crops are damaged and livelihoods are destroyed.

“The intrusion of salt water is very evident. The sea level may be rising millimetres a year, but it is still rising. The strong winds and rising tides are the worst part. Once the salt water enters the land, that’s it. Trees are falling along the coast, crops dying, pigs and chickens are affected.”

What’s more, that’s just the start. Kiribati might be entirely lost (except maybe for the relatively “high” Banaba Island) to the rising ocean by the end of this century. So its government decided to buy a patch of land in Fiji. Kiribati President Anote Tong has told the Fiji Times that the land’s purpose is “to address food security and not for the relocation of my people,” but relocation is definitely part of the country’s response strategy. “We have accepted that we can’t keep everyone in Kiribati, some will have to relocate. Relocating the whole country is our last option,” he said.

“Tong has declared a policy of orderly evacuation that he calls ‘migration with dignity,'” reports the Canberra Times. “The nation is a proverbial canary in the carbon emission coal mine, and the prognosis is unhappy.

As the country’s vice-president said last month in an address to climate-change sessions in the Cook Islands, “if the catastrophe is inevitable, we need to prepare ourselves and our people for eventual migration.” She noted in the speech that Kiribati citizens have helped family members in relocations already necessitated by “massive coastal erosions.” Villages, schools and public buildings have been relocated, and she said Kiribati has “grave concerns.”

A few degrees further north is Marshall Islands, home to some 68,000 and for many years home to U.S. atom-bomb testing. Residents of its northern atolls have endured severe drought this year, and all of the islands have a bleak future – highly probable obliteration by 2100 due to global warming’s effect on sea levels.

Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Phillip Muller explained it thus in a recent essay that appeared in the Washington Post and many other newspapers:

This month the world reached a milestone that brings all of us to a new danger zone: an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 400 parts per million. The World Bank predicts we are on track to a rise of four degrees Celsius in temperature by the end of this century. This would mean a rise in sea levels of three to seven feet. For the world’s lowest-lying countries, including my own, this is a death sentence. The only answer is urgent global action, a Marshall Plan for a new low-carbon global economy.

The Marshalls will host a Pacific Islands Forum in September with leaders from other countries in their corner of the world as well as representation from the U.S., India and other big greenhouse-gas emitters. The hosts will propose a Declaration for Climate Leadership, and they’re hoping for action soon – very soon. As Muller says, Pacific Islanders “cannot afford to wait.”

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  1. Krell says:

    It seems to be a sad curse that the people of the South Pacific Islands suffer for all our “technology”. First the people of the Bikini Atoll were forcefully removed so we could proceed to blow up their way of life, being sure to radiate what is left so they cannot continue.

    Over the course of a nuclear exile that has lasted 66 years, the Bikinian people have been relocated five times. They have nearly starved to death. They have seen their way of life vanish.

    Now others have their fate determined by distant consequences. I remember first reading about Kiribati in the book “Sex Lives of Cannibals” a book by Martin Troost about his experiences of cultural differences between him and the Kiribati people. You wind up falling in love with the place and dreaming of visiting one day.

    So many things are going to change because of climate change, lost forever. Some of them may change our very existence, no matter where we live. The shortsightedness of our culture is damning us to extinction, just the beginning symptoms is already damning Kiribati.

    • Stimpson says:

      Yes, one could think of Polynesia/Micronesia/Melanesia as “cursed paradise.” Gorgeous islands, but with plenty of woes.

  2. Nothing can be done. . . . .

  3. Excellent wake it up piece, Mike. Our beaches have been eroding down here since I could swim… (ah, before I walked) and the rising seas have a heavy maintenance to live ‘on the water’…. our seawall needed mending every two years. I’m on the other side of the intercoastal waterway down here…runs along side the shoreline with A1A between. I’m a block off it. I look at where I live as the new shoreline because the rising water levels are eating our beaches like mad. Property owners in coastal town are socked with new taxes every year to help replenish the beach … but I doubt any of this is going to work. The face of the new land masses are becoming more clear. And the poisoning of the oceans makes it more frightening than I can think.