Sinking States: Climate Change and the Pacific
Male, Maldives
Image Credit: REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

Sinking States: Climate Change and the Pacific

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Looking to the canary in the climate change coal mine — low-lying island states that are slowly being swallowed by the sea — offers a clear warning of the perils associated with a warming planet.

With sea levels steadily rising, spurred by melting glaciers and ice sheets and thermal expansion of the ocean as the water warms, small island developing states (SIDS) are increasingly besieged, their shores nibbled away by a swollen tideline. Latest reports by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) project a sea level rise in the range of 26 to 82 cm by 2100. The rate of rise is dependent on whether the temperature increase is kept to a minimum forecast of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or whether it reaches worst-case projections of 4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Climate change has been declared “unequivocal“ by the IPCC, the leading international advisory body, with more than 800 scientists from all over the world saying with 95 percent certainty that climate change is anthropogenic (caused by human activity). Climate change is happening because heightened amounts of heat-trapping gases are working like a blanket and warming the globe. The main culprit in the group of man-made greenhouse gases (GHG) fuelling global warming is carbon dioxide (CO2), released into the atmosphere primarily by burning fossil fuels — such as coal, oil and natural gas — for energy. Deforestation also plays a key role because with fewer trees to absorb GHG, more heat-trapping gases freely pollute the air.

If we continue contaminating the atmosphere at the current rate, according to the IPCC, the world will continue its trajectory toward the most catastrophic temperature scenario. Put simply — business-as-usual cannot continue without disastrous consequences. One of those consequences will be the death of small island states.

The Maldives is the world’s lowest-lying country, with more than 80 percent of its scattered islands less than one meter above sea level. It will be one of the first nations submerged. In 2009, then-President Mohamed Nasheed (the subject of a documentary called “The Island President” that deals with the subject of climate change) staged a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness about the future of the country if anthropogenic global warming was left unchecked. This archipelago in the Indian Ocean is not alone in gradually drowning: as many as 1,500 of Indonesia’s islands could be underwater by 2050. United States Secretary of State John Kerry, told students in Jakarta that climate change poses a threat to their “entire way of life” and that it was “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

Pacific Island states— such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands — are also suffering the effects of climate change and while eventually being engulfed by the sea is a slow-evolving peril, immediate threats include more intense storm cycles and seawater intrusion of ground water and crop soil. Kiribati President, Anote Tong told Bloomberg Businessweek that his country, a necklace of coral islands, has fewer than 20 years to live. “If nothing is done, Kiribati will go down into the ocean. By about 2030 we start disappearing. Our existence will come to an end in stages. First, the freshwater lens will be destroyed. The breadfruit trees, the taro, the saltwater is going to kill them.”

SIDS in the Pacific region contribute just 0.3 percent of global GHG emissions yet these island communities are on the frontlines of climate change. The United Nations has dubbed 2014 as the International Year of SIDS. With a critical climate treaty to be negotiated in Paris next year — which is supposed to agree on binding measures to reduce emissions and limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius — the designated year of SIDS is central in raising the profile of those nations particularly vulnerable to a warming world. At the UN launch of the International Year of SIDS, the president of Nauru, Baron Waqa said: “No people or country has faced the risk of total inundation from rising seas before. Yet, that is exactly what we must contend with — losing entire languages, cultures, histories, and all the progress that came at such a high cost for those who came before us. We celebrate this special year with the sombre knowledge that unless action is taken soon some islands won’t make it to the end of the century.”

While SIDS face unique challenges, no country or region is untouched by climate change — global warming knows no boundaries. All over the world, extreme weather events such as floods and droughts are expected to become more frequent and severe, with wide-reaching effects on food and water security. Meanwhile, the Earth’s oceans, which act as a carbon sink, are becoming more acidic as they absorb increased amounts of CO2 from the air. This has significant impacts on biodiversity, such as corroding the shells of sea creatures and causing alarming behavioral changes in some fish.

Earlier this year the IPCC released two major draft reports. One, “Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability” paints a grim picture of how societies will be afflicted by climate change and states that, “Responding to climate-related risks involves decision-making in a changing world, with continuing uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts and with limits to the effectiveness of adaptation.”

Climate Change Versus Capitalism

The other IPCC draft report, “Mitigation of Climate Change,” was launched in Berlin last month. It detailed a range of climate change mitigation tactics with emphasis on a transition to renewable energy. It notes that the world needs to at least triple clean energy sources (zero and low carbon) by 2050 in order to have a chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels.

Moving toward clean energy sources may seem an obvious path toward cutting C02 emissions, but this transition requires taking on some large and powerful interests on the well-established energy stage. Investment in fossil fuels must start falling by tens of billions of dollars a year; limiting the severity of warming means leaving these resources, and the profit they represent, in the ground — an unattractive prospect for the conventional energy sector.

Last month Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in an article for The Guardian, appealed for the abandonment of fossil fuel investment and called for focus on finding sustainable solutions to save the planet. “We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth. It is clear [the companies] are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money.”

A transition toward renewable energy sources, namely wind, water and solar power, requires political will and ethical prioritizing. In 2011, global investment in renewable energy overtook investment in fossil fuels for the first time, and hit $228 billion in 2012; the market is expected to account for 25 percent of all energy generation by 2018. Still, in 2012, global fossil fuel subsidies totaled $544 billion, while renewable energy sources got just $101 billion in government support. Last month, CO2 levels in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in human history. This means we are fast approaching our “acceptable” threshold; it’s not too late to put a cap on climate change but concrete action is needed now.

Author and journalist, Naomi Klein, articulated the underlying challenges of concrete action perceptively in a recent article. She wrote that climate change “entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.” Klein points out that this mistiming deeply affects our ability to decisively act. Addressing climate change requires collective, prudent action, action that goes against the grain of shortsighted, self-serving capitalism. “It has meant that corporate power was ascendant at the very moment when we needed to exert unprecedented controls over corporate behaviour in order to protect life on earth. It has meant that we are ruled by a class of politicians who know only how to dismantle and starve public institutions, just when they most need to be fortified and reimagined.” 

Australia: ‘Sleepwalking Toward Catastrophe’

Australia is one country that has been busily dismantling its climate change institutions. Elected last September, the conservative coalition government swiftly axed the Climate Commission — Australia’s independent authority on climate change. Environmentalist, David Suzuki, labeled this “wilful blindness” or a tactic to “deliberately suppress or ignore information that is vital to the decisions they’re making.” (With financial support from the public it has since been re-established as the Climate Council). The government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, then moved to dismantle the Climate Change Authority, which advises on emission reduction targets, and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which supports private investment in renewable energy. These efforts have, so far, been blocked in the Senate. Also, notably, for the first time since 1931, when the science portfolio was created, Australia does not have a designated Science Minister. Leading social scientist, Bruno Latour, describes this approach of wilful ignorance championed by the Abbott government as the: “Australian strategy of voluntary sleepwalking toward catastrophe.”

Abbott said his country should be the “affordable energy capital of the world” given its vast coal and gas assets; it has the fourth-largest share of proven coal reserves in the world. “Australia is open for business,” goes the government’s mantra. After the election, coalition finance spokesman, Andrew Robb, told The Australian that the government would reboot the mining boom. “We can get Australia open for business, we will restore an appetite for risk and investment.” The first item of business in being “open for business” was taking steps to repeal the carbon tax, which puts a price on carbon by taxing the biggest polluters (the move has been blocked for now). Axing the carbon tax was one of the coalition government’s key campaign pledges. Abbott blames this tax, along with the Renewable Energy Target (RET) — which seeks to source 20 percent of the country’s energy from renewables by 2020 — for a massive surge in electricity prices. Chairman of the government’s Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman, has echoed these sentiments, in addition to calling climate change a “scientific delusion” and a “gigantic money tree.”

Australian electricity prices have reportedly doubled over the last several years. However, an investigative report by Jess Hill at Radio National cuts through the spin, finding that the lion’s share of the price spike is linked to network costs associated with updating the energy grid. In reality, more renewable energy entering the mix will mean more supply and more competition, lowering wholesale energy prices. But in an already oversupplied energy market, introducing more clean energy will require displacing conventional providers. And while this should be seen as a good thing for the planet and its inhabitants — given that dirty coal is currently used to generate 76 percent of Australia’s energy needs (natural gas and renewables account for 12 percent each) — unsurprisingly, conventional energy providers are lobbying for the RET to be rolled back. Earlier this year, the government appointed Dick Warburton, who has openly expressed doubts that global warming is caused by human activity, to head a review of the renewables scheme.

Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum recently expressed concern that Australia risks going backwards on climate change under the new government. “We are having difficulty understanding Australia’s climate change policies and their new environmental regime. We don’t understand what they are thinking…It is as if our big brother doesn’t understand us. The same message is going to Australia from other countries in the Pacific forum. Little brother is saying, ‘Big brother should get up and smell the flowers.’”

Will Australia also turn its back if islands drown and newly stateless Pacific islanders come knocking?

Climate Refugees

“Climate refugee” is a term that grabs headlines, although it has no legal meaning. Last year, a man from Kiribati, living in New Zealand with his family on an expired visa, applied for asylum based on the threats climate change posed to his shrinking, former island home. His claim was rejected because environmental hazard is not a legally valid reason to be considered for refugee status — the 1951 UN Refugee Convention is restricted to those fleeing persecution, for instance, on the basis of race or religion.

And yet, as the sea overwhelms islands, people with no option but to retreat to higher ground in their home countries will need refuge.

Migration is a measure of last resort. Adaptation is the priority and while the government of Kiribati is taking steps like building seawalls and improving freshwater management, it has also begun preparing for the harsh prospect that its islands will be completely uninhabitable by the end of the century. It has purchased 6000 acres (24.3 square kilometers) of land in nearby Fiji as an insurance policy, to ensure future food security and possibly even to use as a resettlement site. The government’s website notes that some villagers have already been forced to move inland because of flooding and with land in short supply, “We are in danger of falling off if we keep moving back.” There is also focus on the concept of “migration with dignity,” which aims to create opportunities for people to migrate now, before they are forced to, and to ensure young people are given a high standard of education and are equipped with sought-after skills so they can get jobs in neighboring countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Noteworthy is that each of Kiribati’s atolls (ring-shaped coral islands) has a unique underlying geology and while some are rising, others are subsiding as a result of tectonic shifts beneath them. A swollen sea will more swiftly swallow those that are already sinking. Climate change acts as a threat accelerator, exacerbating existing issues. Kiribati already has problems associated with overcrowding. Half of its population of 100,000 people is packed into the capital of South Tarawa, which covers an area of about 16 square kilometers, just 950 meters at its widest point.

Because of the multi-causal nature of migration, the difficulty in differentiating “natural disasters” from “climate disasters” and the lack of an international legal framework, forecasts of future “climate refugees” vary markedly. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the range of environmental migrants, those moving both within their countries and across borders, between 25 million and 1 billion people by 2050, with 200 million being the most widely cited figure. IOM author of “Migration and Climate Change,” Oli Brown, commented: “There has been a collective, and rather successful, attempt to ignore the scope of the problem… so far there is no ‘home’ for forced climate migrants in the international community, both literally and figuratively.”

Climate change migration is a subject that will capture growing attention. The governments of Switzerland and Norway are leading the way forward with the Nansen Initiative, a process intended to build consensus on a protection agenda for people displaced across borders in the context of climate change.

And while solutions are sought, the president of Fiji has assured the people of Kiribati that: “Fiji will not turn its back on our neighbours in their hour of need…In a worst case scenario and if all else fails, you will not be refugees.”

World Environment Day, on June 5, follows the small island developing states theme, featuring the slogan “Raise your voice, not the sea level.” This World Environment Day brings into focus the fact that, while island states may be on the frontlines of climate change — “Planet Earth is our shared island.”

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