Pacific Island Populations Proactive in the Face of Potential Sea-Level Rise

tropical island

What effect will sea level rise have on low-lying islands? (Photo credit: Amornthep/Shutterstock)

Scientists estimate that a warmer climate could lead to a rise in sea level of between 0.5 to 2.3 meters by the end of the century. These values are at the low-end of scientists’ estimates; in a worst-case scenario, scientists estimate that sea levels could potentially rise between 4 to 6 meters.

While many people are concerned about what this could mean for populations that live along a country’s coastlines, perhaps a more pressing question is what will happen to populations that live on low-lying islands in the middle of the ocean.

Over the past century, the Global Mean Sea Level (GSML) has risen between 10 to 20 centimeters. This estimate takes into account measurements from core samples, sea-level gauge readings, and satellite measurements. As air temperatures increase due to climate change, scientists predict that sea level will rise at a faster rate than in the past. Factors that lead to sea level rise include the expansion of sea water as it warms, the melting if glaciers and polar ice caps, as well as ice loss from Greenland and western Antarctica.

Ecological impacts of sea-level rise include destructive erosion, habitat loss, wetland flooding, and the contamination of aquifers and soils used to grow crops. In terms of human populations, sea-level rise could lead to the displacement of hundreds of millions of people that live in low-lying areas. For island populations in the South Pacific, these dire predictions require action now.

“As the world barrels toward a climate crisis of its own making, my country stands at the precipice,” Christopher J. Loeak, president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands wrote in an editorial published in The New York Times last September. “In the Marshall Islands, like elsewhere in the Pacific, climate change is no longer a distant threat, nor at the doorstep. Climate change is here.”

Some island nations are opting to find alternative locations to move their populations in the face of sea level rise. For example, the island nation of Kiribati has opted to purchase land in Fiji where its population will move if sea level becomes too high. The population of Marshall Islands is taking a more proactive approach.

The Marshall Islands is home to 69,000 people who are spread across a string of 1,156 separate small islands. According to President Loeak, there is no high ground for their population to move to in order to avoid a rising sea level, and they don’t see purchasing land elsewhere as a viable alternative. Instead, they are using the potential doom-and-gloom scenario of a rising ocean as an opportunity to be a champion for renewable energy and low-carbon emitting technologies. At the Pacific Islands Forum in early September 2013, Loeak and other Pacific island leaders signed the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership.

According to President Loeak, the Majuro Declaration “outlines the ambitious targets of our island states to accelerate their transition to low-carbon economies.” The hope is that by 2020, 100 percent of the energy used by the Cook Islands, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, and 50 percent of the energy used by Tonga, will come from renewable sources.

Pacific Island leaders see these aggressive goals as a call-to-action for other nations around the world.

“Our motive is not purely environmental,” President Loeak wrote in the editorial. “It comes from a common-sense realization that renewable energy is good for our economies, our energy security, and the health of our populations. The message to the bigger countries is this: if we can do it, so can you.”

The renewable energy plans in the Marshall Islands include the universal implementation of solar energy, which involves solarizing every home, school, and healthcare center across the nation’s large string of islands. They are also exploring the commercialization potential of ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) with the help of a grant from the World Bank.

President Loeak recognizes that it will take more than just efforts by his country and fellow Pacific Island nations to thwart the threat of rising sea levels.

“Central to the success of the Majuro Declaration will be the listing of new commitments from the world’s major emitters, particularly those around the Pacific Rim that together account for more than 60 percent of global emissions,” he wrote.

More to Explore
Climate Change Has Reached Our Shores
Marshall Islands Pioneers Sustainable Technology Solutions to Climate Change
Island Biodiversity in Danger of Total Submersion With Climate Change
Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA)
Sea Level Rise
Rising Sea Level
Sea Level Rise Research Program: The Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise

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