Climate Change and Small Island Developing States

By Arthur Lyon Dahl – International Environment Forum, IF20 Environment Working Group.

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How would you feel if your home, your community, your culture, your country, your spiritual roots, and everything you hold dear were in mortal danger?

Imagine if you were told that a great flood like the Biblical flood was going to swallow everything up, probably in your lifetime. This would not be a sudden torrent of water but a creeping upward of the sea, inexorably drowning your country, felt most acutely when storm waves ate away at the coast and washed over you.

This is what is facing many Small Island Developing States (SIDS), especially those atoll countries whose low coral islands around lagoons are not more than a few metres above sea level. Their islands have been built by coral reefs—ecosystems of thousands of species growing first around volcanic islands and keeping up with the surface as the volcano slowly sinks into the depths over thousands of years, leaving a ring of coral at the surface, in a process already described by Charles Darwin in 1842.

Rising Sea Levels

The rising sea level is one of the consequences of climate change and global heating, as most of the heat energy trapped by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is absorbed by the oceans. The laws of physics say that anything heated will expand, so ocean water increases in volume as it is warmed, raising the sea level. This is a slow process with great inertia, so sea level rise today is the result of past decades of global warming, and nothing can stop this from continuing long into the future. At best, ending the release of greenhouse gases might eventually slow sea level rise, but it would take hundreds of years to reverse this completely.

The estimated rise of perhaps 2 meters by the end of the century would make the atoll countries disappear, and if tipping points accelerate the melting of Greenland and Antarctic glaciers, adding their volume to the oceans, the flooding would be sooner and greater. It is no wonder that the SIDS see this as an existential threat to their very existence.

Impact and Implications

The UN Secretary-General, in a report to the UN Security Council in February 2023, said that rising seas pose “unthinkable” risks to billions around the world, with profound implications for security, international law, human rights and the very fabric of societies.

The impact of rising seas is already creating new sources of instability and conflict. In the coming decades, low-lying communities – and entire countries – could disappear forever. We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale, and we would see ever-fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources. The danger is especially acute for some 900 million people living in coastal zones at low elevations – one out of every ten people.

Physical Damage and Loss

One impact of the warming oceans, that have seen record high temperatures the last two years beyond any scientific predictions, is the bleaching and dying of coral reefs, the first major ecosystem threatened by disappearance in this century. As a coral reef specialist, I set up long-term monitoring of coral reefs more than half a century ago, now showing how much has already been lost, including fishery resources, tourism attraction and coastal protection.

It is no wonder that SIDS are some of the most vocal governments calling for rapid action on climate change, and taking their case to the International Court of Justice. They have finally won agreement in principle on a loss and damage fund, since they cannot afford all the costs of adapting or rebuilding after repeated severe storms, flooding and drought, salinization of water supplies and destruction of agriculture and fisheries.

But while one can understand calculating financial loss and damage for a house blown away or a community flooded, how can you measure the value of more fundamental things? How much is your culture worth, your language and legends, the places of your ancestors, and the land and sea, plants and animals that are part of your spiritual identity and worldview?

Social, Cultural, and Spiritual Damage and Loss

What does it mean to lose your entire national territory, and with it your nationality and citizenship, your economy and even your fundamental identity, with no place to call home? While there is legal recognition for refugees from persecution, there is no international status or protection for people displaced by climate change. There is no provision for whole communities, or even an entire nation, to migrate together, retaining their social ties even if their tie to the land is broken. You can understand why the citizens of SIDS are so panicked by the failure of climate change action, and the heartlessness of economic actors that see only their short-term profits and not the suffering they are already causing that will accelerate into catastrophe.

The rich Indigenous cultures and local knowledge, which are treasures for the world and guides for the future, are so important for the island peoples. What do you do to save them? Tuvalu has decided to try to store its language and culture, its indigenous knowledge and other intangible treasures in the cloud, in the hope that information technology can protect a heritage that otherwise would vanish when their country goes beneath the waves.

All people of faith, for whom spiritual reality is so fundamental, cannot but sympathize deeply with the trauma and suffering that our consumer lifestyles are bringing to the Indigenous peoples of the world, calling for solidarity. Rather than rejecting migrants, we must welcome them with open arms and hearts, and help them to preserve what is so essential to their existence, appreciating our unity in all our diversity.

The SIDS Conference

The Fourth International Conference of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), in Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean on 27-30 May 2024, is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the islands to consider their common plight and to plan their future together.

These conferences, in Barbados, Mauritius, Samoa and now Antigua and Barbuda, had their origin in the Oceans chapter of Agenda 21, adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which I had the responsibility in the secretariat for drafting. I had previously been the Regional Ecological Adviser to all the Pacific Island countries and organised the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, developing a deep love and respect for the Pacific Islanders and all those facing the special challenges of living on islands. I have always done what I could to protect and encourage the unique perspectives that islanders contribute to the world, since living sustainably within island limits has become a model for our need to learn to live within planetary limits on our small home in space that is the Earth.

We are organizing a second webinar on Climate Change and the Importance of Indigenous Knowledge: Shared humanity for transformative action, on Monday, 27 May 2024, the first day of the SIDS Conference. More information is available here and you can register here. The report of the first webinar in October 2023 can be consulted here. It is so important for people of faith to stand up for those being severely impacted by climate change, and to do what we can to support urgent action on climate now.

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Arthur Lyon Dahl is President of the International Environment Forum, and a retired Deputy Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with 50 years’ international experience in environment and sustainability. His most recent focus has been on global governance and UN reform.