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Climate Change and Small Island Developing States – A Battle We Can’t Afford To Lose

Written by Jake Sanders


Although climate change is a threat to the entire international community, its impact across the world can be disproportionately felt in some countries more than others. Whilst larger states with more diversified economies may be better equipped to deal with climate change and adjust their economies accordingly, small island developing states (SIDS) face far less certainty. Greater vulnerability to changes in weather patterns, ocean acidity levels and decline in species place small island developing states at far greater risk of the devastating economic, political and social consequences of climate changes than many wealthier and more developed states. Crucially, with their current position on the front line against rapidly accelerating climate change, some small island states such as the Maldives have even proposed purchasing land in other countries such as Australia. The purpose of the latter is to prepare for an impending humanitarian disaster and the relocation of its population as ‘climate change refugees’. For small island developing states, climate change is a matter of imminent survival. Hence, it is imperative that the international community help them or we will all be complicit in the devastation of countries lost to climate change.


The immediate effects of climate change are already being widely felt by SIDS populations. Higher rates of annual precipitation causing more frequent flooding and stronger storms fuelled by warmer ocean temperatures are a setting a dangerous new trend for many island states to have to manage. With nearly 1/3rd of citizens in small island states living just a few meters above sea level, the impact of climate change-induced disasters including stronger storm surges, flooding and sea level rise are tangible dangers that will affect nearly every community. This is especially concerning for small island developing states, given that many already face important development challenges regarding access to education, food, and health care. Even SIDS with more developed infrastructure such as Fiji are at great risk from the impact of climate change. This was made globally apparent from the devastation caused by Cyclone Winston in 2016 which caused US$1.4 billion in damages and wiped out 1/3rd of Fiji’s GDP. This raises further concerns regarding whether small island developing states will in the long-term have the capacity to support their populations despite increased threats from climate change.


As they are often geographically isolated and lacking in high quantities of natural resources found on a continental mainland, small island developing states are largely forced to rely on economic systems and infrastructure closely tied to fishing and coastal living. Island states such as Samoa rely on fishing for 30% of exports and 3.5% of GDP, naturally constituting a matter of great national importance. However, warmer ocean temperatures coupled with increased acidification of sea water due to climate change have inhibited the growth of coral, causing fish populations dependent on the coral to decline sharply. A subsequent decline in fish stocks in territorial waters surrounding many island states – with 11% of all fish species now threatened with extinction, has since pushed many SIDS economies on a path towards greater resource scarcity. Considering that at least 25% of global tropical reef coverage can be found in the Pacific region and at least 13% of island states are classified as low-income food deficit countries (LIFDCs) the potential for climate to accelerate existing resource concerns for SIDS is evident.


Whilst a loss of a vital natural resource will present an enormous challenge for many SIDS governments, the impact of climate change at the local level could be even greater. The high cultural, economic and historical value placed on the environment by populations in many SIDS indeed heightens the potential for climate change to cause irreversible damage to island communities. Eco-tourism, an important industry for small island states is also set to suffer. With the loss of coral reefs due to the bleaching effects of ocean acidification, the industry could lose a significant source of revenue from scuba-divers and other eco-tourists accounting for an influx of visitors numbering 8-9 times the size of the population of significant tourist destinations such as Palau. Without a stable source of income, communities with strong ties to eco-tourism and local fishing will be particularly hit – causing many islanders with no historical affiliation with urban environments to flee to their country’s largest cities. In Kiribati, for instance, an estimated one in seven movements of citizens is attributed to climate change, and 50% of all households are already witnessing consequences of this crisis. Therefore, it is clear that small island developing states are now beginning to witness the start of what could become a much larger refugee crisis. An influx of climate refugees to larger settlements within SIDS will in turn put increased strain on already limited resources including housing and work opportunities – heightening the risk of poverty, unemployment and psychological trauma for refugees.


This future reality for small island states becomes even more painful when taking into account traditional tribal fealty towards land located on many islands. With strong and proud links to tribal roots, local communities in states such as in Fiji can be reluctant to agree to a government-initiated evacuation scheme without firstly achieving a consensus in agreement from the tribe as well as support from tribe’s chieftain. This puts further strain on the ability of SIDS governments to manage the social, cultural, and economic consequences of human-induced climate change. Thus, it becomes essential that as an international community we respect such traditions and recognise that the potential for a mis-interpretation of the cultural and historical value attached to land by many tribal communities in SIDS is likely.


With greater focus on international cooperation on climate change as well as public demand for changes at the national level, there is good reason to believe that more states are listening to the calls for action made by SIDS and are open to change. Indeed, the landmark Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 as well as worldwide participation in climate change strikes represent a physical indication of this phenomenon. However, if these events are an indication of lasting progress further commitment is needed. Whilst the agreement has been monumental for securing support for developing states to advance sustainably, as has been indicated by the IPCC more ambitious steps will need to be taken in order to realistically halt further warming and thus secure the interests of SIDS. Such steps include revised national contributions of each country adhering to a limited warming of1.5°C and a global reduction of CO2 emissions by 45% as of 2030 to then push for a carbon neutral world by 2050.


Strategies explicitly aimed at SIDS must also be re-focused – such as a clearer recognition of climate change refugees within the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention in order to secure the same protection of climate-driven refugees as those currently fleeing armed conflict. Furthermore, a comprehensive international aid policy which addresses specific climate-related concerns in SIDS should include the introduction of measures to aid land-reclamation lost to rising sea level to help reduce the influx of refugees overall. Such actions could help ease pressure on SIDS governments regarding resource availability as well as limiting the cultural damage to communities and historic tribal lands. It is vital therefore that small island developing states are better represented and are guaranteed support from the wider international community, for if we start by failing small island developing states, we run the risk of gradually failing everyone. Thus, this first battle in the struggle against climate change is perhaps the most consequential as losing this one could be an unfortunate indicator of what is to come.

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