Small island states will not, most likely, be swallowed by the sea… In research published in 2010, Paul Kench measured the size of 27 atolls over a period of decades and found that while 14% had shrunk and a couple had disappeared, 43% stayed the same size and another 43% became bigger. Many of the ring-shaped coral reefs have been able to adapt to sea-level rise, changing shape as sediment is eroded and pushed around. Tuvalu’s land surface, for instance, increased by 3% between 1971 and 2014 despite a rise in the local sea level of 4mm a year, twice the global average for that period…
But there are other, more immediate effects of climate change that threaten the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of these countries. They are less arresting, harder to explain and, as in the changing shape and size of islands, sometimes counterintuitive. But the upshot is the same: the countries may soon become uninhabitable.
One is “king tides”, high tides that briefly but entirely inundate the narrow strips of low-lying land that comprise most atoll, are becoming more frequent. The saltwater can kill crops such as banana and papaya and seeps into groundwater, making it unfit to drink.
There are also ways to keep islands habitable: Kiribati plans to dredge its lagoons and use the sand to raise the surrounding islands higher above the sea. Tuvalu has embarked on a land-reclamation project. But the spectre of climate change makes it harder to drum up investment for such schemes. “I am trying to change the minds of the many people who say, ‘We cannot invest in your country, you’re finished’,” says Kiribati’s Mr Tito.
The depressing long-term solution may be to move. The Marshall Islands hopes to renegotiate its post-colonial “Compact of Free Association” with America, which expires in 2023, to ensure a permanent right of residence in the United States for all Marshallese. Tuvalu has no such option. Maina Talia, a climate activist, thinks that the government should take Fiji up on its offer of a home where Tuvaluans could practice the same culture rather than “be dumped somewhere in Sydney’‘.
Earlier this year, the government of Tuvalu, which until recently insisted that there would be no Plan B, established a new un initiative. Its aim is to work with “like-minded countries” to figure out how and where such countries could be relocated, how they could continue to function ex-situ, and whether they could still lay claim to vast exclusive economic zones if their land disappeared under water.
Relocating a country would raise other big questions, too, for both the international system and the way in which people think about statehood. “How to prepare to move a nation in dignity, that has never been done before,” says Kamal Amakrane, a migration expert whose ideas helped spark the UN initiative.
Excerpt from Moving story: Pacific countries face more complex problems than sinking, Economist, August 7, 2021