This year's World Environment Day is focused on small island nations who are at high risk as sea levels rise.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon explains the motivation for this focus, “Small Island Developing States face a range of challenges. For a significant number, their remoteness affects their ability to be part of the global supply chain, increases import costs…and limits their competitiveness in the tourist industry. And many are extremely vulnerable to the immediate effects of climate change—from the devastating impact of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones, to the threat of sea level rise.…Yet the people there have not been defeated by fear. Instead, they have stepped up and shown extraordinary leadership and resilience. Despite having contributed little to the problem, they are pioneering solutions for a more sustainable future.”
How much will sea levels rise in the future? It's hard to know exactly, but everyone agrees they're rising.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sea levels will most likely rise three feet on average, assuming greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as they have. Even if we stopped carbon dioxide emissons today, we’ve locked in roughly six feet of sea level rise, the Potsdam Institute says; it’s just a question of how quickly it will happen.
Even if we limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, the same report shows, over the next few hundred years we could see an additional 15 feet of sea level rise. Beyond 2°C of temperature rise, there’s at least a 50 percent chance that the Greenland Ice Sheet will collapse entirely, causing a further 21 feet of sea level rise on top of any other rise that occurs. Recently, scientists discovered that the West Antarctic ice sheet has started to collapse. It will contribute another 12 feet of sea level rise, though again it's unclear how quickly that will happen.
Though significant rises in sea levels are decades away, even the modest changes currently happening have displaced people from small island nations already.
In 2005, the UN declared the 100 people living on Tegua, part of the Torres Strait Islands in the South Pacific, as the world’s first climate change refugees when one quarter of their land was lost to a combination of land subsidence and rising seas.
Four years later, the residents of the Carteret Islands, off Papua New Guinea, became the first entire community to be displaced by rising seas. The relocation of the 2,500 people from the Carteret Islands to the mainland of Papua New Guinea was documented in the 2011 Oscar-nominated film, Sun Come Up. At current rates of inundation, the Carterets could be fully underwater next year.
The Maldives, located off the southwestern coast of India, are similarly threatened. Here the lives of some 425,000 people are at stake. By the end of this century, with three feet of sea level rise, they too will be underwater.
In 2009, president Mohamed Nasheed, the nation's first democratically elected leader, sprang to international fame for his climate activism, and since then the Maldives have been doing all they can to at least slow their demise. Though since ousted in a coup, Nasheed set ambitious renewable energy goals, pledged to be carbon neutral in under a decade, and consistently urged more international action to reduce emissions.
Other small island nations, many in the Pacific Ocean, are similarly vulnerable. But any low-lying coastal area will also be at risk in the coming decades.
Given the amount of sea level rise already guaranteed, the options for coastal communities are limited. Every community with a coastline will have to decide when to “build higher, build stronger, or retreat,” as Southwest England has had to do in the face of extreme winter weather for the last eight years.
Unfortunately, for residents of many small island nations, there is nowhere to retreat to.
This World Envorinment Day, you can do your part by raising your voice about this issue. Most importantly, you can encourage collective political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus slow temperature rise. Host your own event, or join one already happening.
© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies