Climate change is an inevitable reckoning. Those who are most vulnerable to the rising sea levels are the people whose community is built on small islands and on coastlines. Ultimately, these people will lose everything.
Kiribati, The Maldives, The Seychelles, The Torres Strait Islands, Tegua, The Soloman Islands, Micronesia, Palau, The Marshall Islands, The Carteret Islands, Tuvalu and Bangladesh: the islands that will be left underwater. The islands where the environmental refugees will come from.
Global warming contributes to sea-level rise in two major ways: through melting of glaciers and ice sheets and expansion of ocean water as it warms. During the twentieth century, global mean sea level rose at an average of 0.07 inches (1.8 millimeters) per year.5 However, from 1993 to 2003 the average rate of sea-level rise increased to around 0.12 inches (3.1 millimeters) per year
This is a humanitarian crisis. As the sea levels rise, homes and businesses are flooded, water sources are contaminated, crops are destroyed and a nation is lost to the sea.
There has been an unprecedented rise in sea levels in the last century. The rise is unmatched by any time in the last 6,000 years. A study, conducted by the Australian National University, found that there is no evidence that sea levels have changed by more than 20cm in the last 6,000 years. Since the start of the 20th century, however, there has been a 20cm rise in sea levels.
Kiribati is about halfway between Hawaii and Australia and is made up of 32 low-lying atolls and one raised island. Most of its population has already moved to one island, Tarawam, after the rest of their land disappeared beneath the ocean.
Kiribati has recently purchased land in Fiji. Its residents will be relocated in the event that sea-level rise drowns the Pacific island nation and displaces its population of just over 100,000 people. The people of Kiribati are the face of poverty in climate change. The average age of their population is just 22. They are impoverished and vulnerable.
President Anote Tong has predicted that his country will become uninhabitable in 30 to 60 years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated that the residents of Kiribati may be forced to leave their islands as a result of climate change. “Entire populations could thus become stateless,” the agency wrote.
“Our voice should count and our stories should be told, and the world should listen and take action. For we are the trial, we are the ‘early warning system’ to what the world will face when sea level rise continues unheeded” – Head of State President Tong.
The Republic of Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, consists of 1,190 islands. 80% of the land lies below 1m. Housing and critical infrastructure in the Maldives, including five airports and 128 harbors, are concentrated along coastlines. In 2007, a series of swells forced the evacuation of more than 1,600 people from their homes and damaged more than 500 housing units. The Maldives is built on coral reefs. Not only is the rising sea level threatening the very existence of the island, but the increasing sea temperature is destroying the precious reefs.
The Seychelles consists of 155 small islands. It has been predicted that the Seychelles could see up to 10 percent more sea-level rise than the global average. It has an estimated population of around 84,600. The economy relies heavily on tourism and tuna fishing. The tourism industry is rapidly overcrowding the beaches of the Seychelles. The Seychelles location in the Indian Ocean makes it highly vulnerable to tropical cyclones, floods, storm surges, landslides and tsunamis. The risk is further exacerbated by climate change and sea-level rise. The 2013 cyclone caused flooding and landslides that led to damages and losses exceeding $8.4 million.
“I am not here to celebrate the limited progress, but to speak out once again, as we have always done, of our fight for survival, our human right to exist,” the president, James Michel, said in a speech at the 2009 UN climate meeting in Copenhagen conference.
The Torres Strait Islands
The Torres Strait Islands are located between Australia and New Guinea and are made up of 274 islands with a population over 8,000. Evidence indicates that the dangerous levels of sea rise may cause up to 2000 Torres Strait Islanders to be displaced.
“The biggest question is, what do people want to do with their lives? Is it good being resilient, or are we trying to stand in front of something that will wash over us any time?” – Joseph Elu, chairman of the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA)
In 2005, the UN delcared the 100 residents of Tegua to be the first climate change refugees. Between 1997 and 2009, the island sunk by 5 inches.
The Soloman Islands
The Solomon Islands are east of Papua New Guinea, and have a population of 584,578. Satellite data shows the sea near the Solomon Islands has risen annually by 8mm over the past 20 years, compared to the global annual average of 3mm. The average height above sea level is around 2m. More than 85% of the nation’s 550,000 people practise subsistence livelihoods in rural areas on an archipelago of more than 900 islands.
Micronesia, a western Pacific Island state located north of Papua New Guinea and east of Palau, is made up of 607 mountainous islands and low-lying coral atolls and is being eroded away by rising sea levels. The sea level near the island state is rising by 10 millimetres per year
Palau consists of eight principal islands and more than 250 smaller ones, about 500 miles southeast of the Philippines. Their population of 20,000 is being threatened by rising sea levels. Although Palau has higher points of around 30ft, these places are uninhabitable due to dense forest and hilly terrain.
“I’m scared for staying close to the water…I could not leave Palau. I mean, this is my island… If the land has to be under the water, I cannot move anyway” – says Palauan conservation officer Rodney Esebei.
The Carteret Islands
The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea have become the world’s first entire community to be displaced by climate change. In the blink of an eye, without a lot of media attention, the families of the Carteret Islands have moved.The Carteret Islands are located in the south-west Pacific Ocean and were/is home to about 2,500 people. Nowhere on the islands is currently more than 1.2 meters above sea level. By 2015, the island will be completely underwater.
“If America can go to the Moon, if the Netherlands can build sea walls, can’t they do that to our islands? In Copenhagen we have to face the fact that we have to make a U-turn. We have so many toys, so many things, that we do not need. We have to come to see that having a simple life is much better than a complicated life.” – A Clan Chief
The highest point of Tuvalu is 4.6m. It is halfway between the state of Hawaii and the nation of Australia. It consists of five coral atolls and four reef islands. The flooding and soil salination are becoming a problem. The government has made plans to evacuate the entire population to other countries as it is believed that Tuvalu will be completely submerged by the end of the 21st century.
Prime Minister Saufatu Sapo’aga told the United Nations last year that the global-warming threat is no different from “a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.”
Bangladesh, located in South Asia, experiences floods that cover about a quarter of the country every year. Climate change is making the floods worse and the 156 million people in the country are learning how to live with the effects. A 1m rise in sea levels would inundate 20 percent of the country’s landmass.