Relocation or Elevation: How Pacific Islanders are Dealing with the Climate Crisis

As featured in Edition 38, available here.

BY LILY MECKEL (2nd year - PAIS - Frankfurt, Germany)

The Pacific Islands are home to extraordinary natural landscapes and some of the most diverse surviving Indigenous communities in the world. The Pacific Islanders, their cultures and traditions, as well as the coral reefs, the marine life, and rare species of flora and fauna that make up the immensely biodiverse landscape of the Pacific Islands, are under existential threat by climate change. They have been at the forefront of the impacts of climate change, and according to this year’s IPCC report, they are at risk of extinction within a century if the climate crisis is not acted upon immediately.

The ways in which the Pacific Islands are being

affected are extensive. Rising sea levels, which result from melting ice sheets and glaciers, are causing coastal erosion in the low-lying islands, forcing inhabitants to relocate. The rise of saltwater also threatens freshwater as a source of water and food, which endangers the very livelihoods of the people, who mostly rely on their income from fishing, agriculture, and other occupations that rely on these natural resources. Rising temperatures cause coral bleaching and threaten marine species. Additionally, numerous natural disasters, such as cyclones, droughts, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and more are increasingly hitting the Pacific Islands, causing immense damage. These are only some of the ways in which the Pacific Islands and the Pacific way of life are being affected, with worse to come if the climate crisis is not addressed.

These predictions paint a devastating picture for the future of the Pacific Islands. Even though the region only emits 0.23% of emissions worldwide, it is experiencing first-hand the consequences of a crisis that others have caused. The islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu have already started to disappear, and, together with the Maldives and the Marshall Islands, are most at risk of facing the consequences of climate change according to the IPCC. The unfair bearing of consequences caused by developed countries is true for many other regions in the world, especially those that are less developed and not able to invest in climate adapting infrastructure, showing how unjustly climate change is affecting different parts of the world.

Only recently has the developed world come to the realisation that climate change has arrived. The 2021 IPCC report linked many of the devastating disasters that occurred recently to human-made global warming, from the heatwaves and forest fires in Southern Europe and the United States, to the heavy flooding that hit Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, as well as China. Climate change cannot be ignored, it has reached every corner of the planet.

The Pacific Islands have come to this realisation much earlier and have already been forced to adapt to a changing environment. The double threat of rising sea levels and coastal erosion has forced people to move further inland, higher up, or away from the islands altogether. This dilemma of relocation or elevation is faced by many in the region. The Marshall Islands, for example, is planning to raise the land, which former Chief Secretary Ben Graham considered to be the only possibility to ensure the islands’ survival. Relocation to other islands or countries has also been considered as an option, yet the abandonment of these islands threatens the loss of entire cultures, which include languages, land ties, traditions, and more, making this decision a very difficult one.

Other methods to adapt to a changing climate are often traditional and community-based. Traditional examples of making agriculture more adaptable include using palm leaves to provide shade for crops or using seaweed to compost. On many islands, mangroves have been planted, which act as a natural form of coastal protection and are cost-efficient. These are only some of the ways in which the Pacific Islands have adapted to a changing climate using natural community-oriented methods. A lot can be learned from these approaches to climate adaptation.

The challenges the Pacific Islands endure will soon face many more places around the globe. Every effort should be made to preserve these islands and their people, and to do so, the largest emitters, and in particular Western countries, need to take responsibility for the climate crisis and take drastic action to become carbon neutral. They must also aid less economically developed countries and those that are most affected by climate change in adapting towards a changing environment and take those in who will be forced to leave their homes. COP26, which is due to take place in September of this year, is possibly the last chance to take action to protect both the future existence of the Pacific Islands, as well as many other places around the world.

IMAGE: Unsplash/Winston Chen (Marshall Islands)