How to save the islanders from global warming

The talk of sinking islands has long existed as a way of describing the future risks facing small island states. But the reality is that today these threats are already becoming plausible. Many small island states have decided to reintroduce previously unpopular resettlement and migration policies due to climate change.

Such is the story of Christmas Island or Kiribati, located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – the largest coral atoll in the world. A closer look at the history of this island sheds light on the problems faced by people living in similar places around the world and on the inadequacy of current international politics.

Kiribati has a dark past of British colonialism and nuclear testing. They gained independence from the United Kingdom on July 12, 1979, when the Republic of Kiribati was created to govern a group of 33 islands located on both sides of the equator in the area. Now another threat appears over the horizon.

Raised no more than two meters above sea level at its highest point, Kiribati is one of the most climate-sensitive inhabited islands on the planet. It is located in the center of the world, but most people cannot accurately identify it on the map and know little about the rich culture and traditions of this people.

This culture may disappear. One in seven migrations to Kiribati, whether inter-island or internationally, is driven by environmental change. And a 2016 UN report showed that half of households have already been affected by rising sea levels in Kiribati. Rising sea levels also create problems with the storage of nuclear waste in small island states, remnants of a colonial past.

Displaced people become refugees as a result of climate change: people who have been forced to leave their homes due to the effects of severe climate events and return to normal life elsewhere, losing their culture, community and decision-making power.

This problem will only get worse. Increased storms and weather events have displaced an average of 24,1 million people per year globally since 2008, and the World Bank estimates that an additional 143 million people will be displaced by 2050 in just three regions: Sub-Saharan Africa , South Asia and Latin America.

In the case of Kiribati, several mechanisms have been set up to assist the inhabitants of the islands. For example, the Government of Kiribati is implementing the Migration with Dignity program to create a skilled workforce that can find good jobs abroad. The government also purchased 2014 acres of land in Fiji in 6 to try to ensure food security as the environment changes.

New Zealand also hosted an annual lottery of opportunities called the “Pacific Ballot”. This lottery is designed to help 75 Kiribati citizens settle in New Zealand per year. However, quotas are reportedly not being met. It is understandable that people do not want to leave their homes, families and lives.

Meanwhile, the World Bank and the UN argue that Australia and New Zealand should improve the mobility of seasonal workers and allow open migration for Kiribati citizens in light of the impacts of climate change. However, seasonal work often does not offer great prospects for a better life.

While well-intentioned international politics has largely focused on resettlement rather than providing adaptive capacity and long-term support, these options still do not provide true self-determination for the people of Kiribati. They tend to commodify people by cutting their relocation into employment plans.

It also means that useful local projects such as a new airport, a permanent housing program and a new marine tourism strategy may soon become redundant. To ensure that migration does not become a necessity, realistic and affordable strategies for the restoration and conservation of land on the island are needed.

Encouraging population migration is, of course, the least cost option. But we must not fall into the trap of thinking that this is the only way out. We don’t need to let this island sink.

This is not only a human problem – leaving this island in the sea will eventually lead to the global extinction of bird species that are found nowhere else on Earth, such as the Bokikokiko warbler. Other small island states threatened by rising sea levels also host endangered species.

International assistance can solve many future problems and save this amazing and beautiful place for people, non-human animals and plants, but the lack of support from rich countries makes it difficult for the inhabitants of small island states to consider such options. Artificial islands have been created in Dubai – why not? There are many other options such as bank reinforcement and land reclamation technologies. Such options could protect the homeland of the Kiribati and at the same time increase the resilience of these places, if international assistance were more prompt and consistent from the countries that caused this climate crisis.

At the time of the writing of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, there was no internationally accepted definition of “climate refugee”. This creates a protection gap, as environmental degradation does not qualify as “persecution”. This is despite the fact that climate change is largely driven by the actions of industrialized countries and their negligence in dealing with its harsh effects.

The UN Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019 may begin to address some of these issues. But for the millions of people living in places threatened by climate change, the issue is environmental and climate justice. This question should not only be about whether the threats of climate change are being addressed, but also why those who want to continue living in small island states often lack the resources or autonomy to address climate change and other global challenges.

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