The fundamental problem with climate change warnings is that they are often oblique. They talk about future generations — but at an abstract point in time. Terms such as rising sea levels and melting ice caps sound vaguely dramatic — and unspecific. And when something specific is invoked — like a one-and-a-half degree rise in global temperatures — it can sound like a welcome present from Mother Nature. In scientific terms, any negative consequences can appear frustratingly complex.
However, if your country of residence is Kiribati, with an average elevation of two metres above sea level, then the implications of climate change are far more threatening and present. Its 100,000 odd residents don’t have time to watch sea levels encroach and conquer the little land they have. Kiribati is likely to become the first entire nation to be completely wiped off the map due to rising tides. The I-Kiribati will never return to their homeland because it will have disappeared.
This is why Kiribati purchased a chunk of land in Fiji in 2014 and why it plans to begin transplanting its entire population there in 2020. To its credit, Fiji appears to be willing to welcome its Kiribati neighbours. Filled with small low-lying nations, such as Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Niue, it’s no wonder that the Pacific is significantly more proactive than the rest of the world when it comes to the climate.
But it’s not as easy as just relocating people to dry land. For the Pacific Islands, the threats of climate change are ongoing and developing. For every inch of sea-level rise, the freshwater table is reduced and the small amount of land they have to grow food dwindles even further.
And it’s not just land that is affected. As ocean temperatures rise and sea currents change, so too will the migratory patterns of the region’s number one resource: tuna. These fish will move into deeper seas and different territories, demanding larger boats to catch them, and ultimately rendering local fishermen powerless to make their living and feed their people.
The problem is serious: it could potentially decimate the entire tuna industry that Pacific nations rely so heavily on. The majority of the world’s tuna comes from the west central Pacific region and of that two-thirds from small Pacific nations. When those tuna are pushed out of these states’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) due to this migration, Pacific Islanders will lose their primary means of survival.
Already aid-dependent countries will have few if any means of self-determination, and will be even further crippled to deal with rising tides. When Kiribati moves in its entirety to Fiji, will it be able to remain in control of its EEZ? If not, how will the country survive after it evacuates its own shores?
The Pacific, of course, will not be the only area affected, but it will be one of the first to be impacted so comprehensively by the changing climate. If a few hundred thousand people in the Pacific seems negligible to policy makers now, will they be able to ignore it when climate refugees begin tallying in the millions?
Bangladesh, for example, is the eighth most populous country in the world and one of the most densely filled. Already a serious flood that can cover as much as 60 per cent of the country’s land is unleashed every five years and future predictions for the country are grim. A three-foot rise in sea levels, predicted to occur in the next half-century, would submerge a fifth of the country and displace some 30 million Bangladeshis alone.
Given all this, we would be wise to take the climate threat in the Pacific seriously. The harm done on the region climatically will be the first indication of what’s in store globally, and we now have a much-needed call to action. Finding a way forward for Kiribati today will be the first step in combating the changing climate of tomorrow.
Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 230 September 2018: 26.