Kiribati and Other Island Nations Are Under Siege
The people of Kiribati and other low-lying atoll islands live no more than 3 meters above the surface of the Pacific Ocean — and now the ocean is rising to meet them. Heat from global warming is increasing the ocean’s volume, melting polar ice, raising sea levels worldwide, and nowhere are the effects more devastating than in the Pacific’s small island developing states. This is a climate disaster in progress.
Sea-level rise and storms — strengthened by warmer seas —challenge the very existence of these and other island nations (See Video). These conditions magnify the destructive force of disasters such as Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu and other low-lying Pacific islands in 2015, followed soon after by Typhoons Maysak and Dolphin. More carbon emissions will continue to warm the seas, contributing to more powerful and unpredictable storms.
Rising seas and strong winds have already made their mark on these islands: injuring and killing residents, and destroying homes, villages and roads. In some areas, severe coastal erosion and flooding have forced the relocation of entire villages. The invading sea also wipes out food crops and contaminates the islands’ sole source of drinking water, formed by rain that seeps through the soil and floats atop the seawater, about 5 feet below ground level. The effects of this disaster-in-progress on people are devastating—with groups such as women, children, the disabled and the elderly becoming more vulnerable.
A Climate Refugee Crisis Must Be Averted
Few global events in the foreseeable future will require greater moral or collective action than protecting Pacific island societies from the substantial disruption they face from climate change and sea-level rise. These non-industrialized nations had little to do with the climate crisis, yet they will be among the first to bear the costs. Part of the cost is economic. Already, the governments of Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific nations including Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands are struggling to manage requests from their people for assistance to address climate-related damage to homes and infrastructure — placing increasing pressure on national treasuries and systems that are ill-equipped to handle it. This is but a harbinger of what is to come.
There is also a humanitarian cost. The disruption to the islands — and the forced exodus of people from their lands — threatens regional stability and could unravel the very fabric of Pacific societies. If not carefully planned, a human migration of this scale will tax neighboring countries faced with accepting and integrating an influx of refugees. Even with proper planning, neighboring countries can provide a physical refuge but cannot preserve these islands’ ancient cultures.