Scientific research indicates that the annual average rate of rising sea levels in the world over the past 20 years has been 3.2 millimetres a year, roughly twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years. The current situation threatens the stability of many coastal countries and islands. Climate change effects are even more dramatic in the Pacific Islands area, with an annual rate of rising sea levels of 10 millimetres a year over the same period.
The Pacific Islands region is vast territory and highly diverse in terms of landscapes, climate, biodiversity, and culture. The ocean and its resources play a vital role in the lives of the people of the region. Because of the isolation of communities and the changing climate, during centuries they have constantly developed different techniques of adaptation to overcome the challenging living conditions of remote islands. However, these abilities to adapt are not enough to combat the impact that they are suffering: massive land erosion, inundations, ocean chemistry changes, ocean temperature rising and winds and waves changes.
High islands have more chances to respond to climate change effects but the population density is higher in low-lying coastal areas and is mainly concentrated in low islands where the land is flat enough for large-scale settlements and agriculture.
In the last few years we have seen land disappearing under the water. In the case of the Solomon, the country has lost five of its islands and the population has been displaced to other territories of the country. 640,000 inhabitants living in the archipelago look with scepticism and uncertainty to the future. Solomon Islands are just one example where climate change effects can be massively perceived. There are more extreme cases, like Kiribati.
The Republic of Kiribati is located in the central Pacific Ocean and it has already suffered the same misfortune as Solomon, losing some of its islands. Different studies demonstrate the high vulnerability of this country to sea level rise and according to projections the whole country will disappear underwater in the next 30 years.
From a policy perspective there are two main options to face such an environmental crisis. The implementation of mitigation initiatives to prevent the advance of climate change, and the application of adaptation policies to reduce the impact of its effects.
In the case of Kiribati, it is probably too late for both initiatives. Its disappearance is imminent and effects such as increased soil salinity, water supply problems and floods are already in place. However, Kiribati Government is trying to influence the global environmental policy agenda being one of the most active participants of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). In the last years, the PIF has focused its attention on environmental issues due to the increasing impact of climate change over their territories and the uncertainty of their future. If action is taken soon other countries could avoid a similar fate.
PIF activity is not only focused on cooperation between its members, they are also oriented to have a global outreach, as environmental issues are not thought to be merely regional problems. One of the main points emphasised by PIF is that the Pacific Islands contribution to global warming is insignificant with emissions per capita. In fact, developing countries are usually the most affected by climate change although they are not necessarily the main polluters, making them dependent on decisions of other Governments. Adaptation by these countries is necessary but not enough to reverse the effects of climate change.
Global warming threatens to cause one of the major refugee crises in history and Kiribati could be the first country forced to displace its entire population for environmental reasons. The current institutions and legal frameworks are not prepared to protect people affected by this situation. There is a need to protect the inhabitants of these countries under a possible new `climate refugee´ status or create a different legal framework to protect people displaced by environmental issues.
In September 2015, Ioane Teitiota, a citizen from Kiribati who lived in New Zealand, was denied “climate refugee” status. A New Zealand court ruled that Teitiota’s family did not qualify as refugees because Kiribati Government is taking steps to protect their citizens and the situation in the archipelago is sustainable for the moment. According to their lawyer, the reality is that New Zealand is sending back his family to a “situation where there is danger from a number of factors, such as rising sea levels and pollution of freshwater and the possibility of cyclones destroying the place”.
The “risk” for a country to recognize this status is to receive more and more people in the same situation. There are approximately 9,7 million people living in the Pacific Islands. Not all of them in the same situation, but it is clear that Kiribati and other countries will become uninhabitable before they disappear underwater. If New Zealand recognizes Teitiota’s family as “climate refugees” more people in a similar situation may claim this status. The impact of a massive migration of people for very different cultures in a country of 4,5 million inhabitants it is unquantifiable. So, to help people affected by global warming, it is important to create a unified international protection plan for `climate refugees´ and global consensus to prevent the causes of climate change.