Islands fight to stay above water amid climate change
Rising seas, disappearing glaciers, melting ice, storm surges: The threat of climate change still feels distant to many people.
Not for residents of small, low-lying islands in the Pacific. Global warming has arrived, and it's turned their nations — Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Kiribati and others — into slowly sinking ships. In some regions, the freshwater has turned salty, farmlands are barren and officials say rising waters will submerge entire nations by century's end unless concerted action is taken.
Concerted action has most definitely not been taken.
As a result, many of these countries have resorted to extreme measures. They've engaged global legal experts to figure out whether a drowned nation still exists, have threatened legal action against coal plants a hemisphere away and have tried to drum up support for a case at the International Court of Justice. Quixotic as these tactics may sound, they risk alienating wealthy countries — the very ones they'll rely on for humanitarian aid to help refugees from droughts and floods.
"There's a real existential question for these islands," says Earthjustice attorney Erika Rosenthal, who works with small island states to stem the volatile tides of global warming. For these tiny nations, climate change raises the "most urgent questions of national sovereignty."
Sound like Sturm und Drang? More like Apocalypse Slowly. Well before the water submerges them, the islands will become uninhabitable. Salt water contaminates drinking-water supplies and ruins arable land. Subsidence and increased flooding wipe away coastline dwellings. Then there's the evil twin of global warming, ocean acidification, which harms sea creatures and those who eat and sell them.
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In the capital atoll of the Marshall Islands, "The principal source of drinking water is capturing rainwater runoff from the airport runway," because the groundwater has become undrinkable, says Michael Gerrard, a Columbia law professor who advises the tiny nation on legal remedies. Insult to injury: The north of the country is in the midst of a serious drought. It's water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
Climate-change talks and treaties have offered the islands little recourse. The United States, responsible for 18 percent of global emissions, hasn't ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Canada dropped out last year. Kyoto's successor treaty, to take effect in 2020, is being negotiated now, but carbon-emitting infrastructure moves at a much faster pace than international bureaucracy. "Every time a coal-fire plant is built, they're locking in infrastructure" that contributes to future warming, says Rosenthal — and delaying an inevitable move to renewable energy. Climate-change negotiators generally agree on a goal to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, but analysts say that goal is unrealistic and has likely already been scuttled.
When the survival of your island nation rests with powers much larger than you, what do you do?
In 2009, the Marshall Islands' ambassador to the U.S. asked Gerrard to look into that very question, as well as other queries that sound surreal: Is a country underwater still a nation-state? Does it retain its seat at the United Nations? What happens to national assets like fishing rights? And where should its citizens go? (No easy answers, but the questions are explored in a recent book Gerrard edited.)
Meanwhile, island leaders are pushing the boundaries of international law in seeking attention and, ultimately, emissions reductions.
• Former Maldivian president Mohammed Naheed and his cabinet donned scuba gear for an underwater press conference on global emissions.
• The Federated States of Micronesia demanded that the Czech Republic decommission a coal-fired power station by 2016 instead of expanding it, citing the effect of carbon emissions on its national fate.
•The government of Palau led the charge for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on whether big, carbon-emitting countries might be liable for climate change. For the ICJ to consider the case, a majority of the U.N.'s General Assembly needs to endorse the referral. They have not.
• The Association of Small Island States is making a concerted effort to get big carbon emitters, including emerging economies like those of India, China and Brazil, to begin reducing emissions before 2020.
It's not just small islands, of course. Later this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the largest worldwide monitor, is expected to announce that coastal cities will drown by 2100, absent serious reductions in carbon emissions. The United States will likely see its first climate refugees well before that — perhaps as soon as 2017, when the sea may wash away native communities in Alaska.
It's some of the trickiest diplomacy in the world. After all, these tiny and typically poor countries generally don't want to risk alienating their biggest foreign aid donors — not least because they'll need help mitigating the damage caused by flooding, salination and subsidence.
But at some point in the near future, there won't be much choice