Some interesting (and concerning) facts about climate change impacts in the Pacific

Rusted, old shipwreck, Tuvalu. Photo credit: INABAB Tomoaki

Rusted, old shipwreck, Tuvalu. Photo credit: INABAB Tomoaki

The effects of climate change will be felt first by the poor and the vulnerable. The vulnerable communities in the Pacific will be among the first to be displaced. Let’s take a look at why.

Tuvalu is a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Hawaii and Australia. The nation consists of 9 coral atolls, which are small, circular, coral-reef islands and has a population of about 10,000 people. There is no location in the entire nation that is 3 metres above sea level.

Kiribati is a Micronesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator and the International Date Line. The nation consists of 32 atolls and one island and is the home to about 100,000 people. While the nation has one mountain, the majority of the nation’s land mass sits just two metres above sea level.

The size and elevation above sea level put the people of Tuvalu and Kiribati in a physically vulnerable position. Previous entries to this blog, however, indicated that environmental migration is the result of both the physical vulnerability to a disaster, and the person’s ability to cope. Tuvalu and Kiribati are poorly positioned to cope with the effects of climate change due to their existing social and economic vulnerabilities. Both nations experience over-crowding in the major cities. Both nations have concerning levels of underemployment, especially amongst their youth. One of the major contributions to both of these nations’ GDP, is aid. Beyond their colonial histories and existing political relationships (with Australia, New Zealand and the UK), neither of these nations have strong levels of political power. The tools with which the people and governments of Tuvalu and Kiribati may navigate and respond to the effects of climate change, are limited and questionable.

These two nations are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Severe storm surges on atolls where it is possible to throw a rock from one side to the other are a concern to those who live upon them. These storm surges are anticipated to increase in their severity. Further to this, the frequency of these storm surges are anticipated to also increase, which reduces the recovery time between disaster events. School and hospital buildings are continually needing to be repaired. Colonial habits of living close to the beach (as opposed to pre-colonial habits of living further away from the beach) increase the vulnerability of residents as well as increases the difficulty of adaptation.

Sea level rise is popularly attributed to the inhabitability of these nations. The reality is that these nations will become uninhabitable before they become inundated. It is more likely that these nations will become uninhabitable due to increased severity and frequency of storm surges, as explained above, and due to salt water contamination of fresh water stocks (an existing stress) and of arable land (also an existing stress). The ability of these atolls to sustain life is increasingly becoming reduced. It will become unsafe to live upon these atolls before these atolls conclusively become inundated.