Effects of climate change on island nations

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Surface area change of islands in the Central Pacific and Solomon Islands.[1]

The effect of climate change on island nations can be extreme because of low-lying coasts, relatively small land masses, and exposure to extreme weather.[2] The effects of climate change, particularly sea level rise and increasingly intense tropical cyclones, threaten the existence of many island countries, island peoples and their cultures, and will alter their ecosystems and natural environments. Several Small Island Developing States are among the most vulnerable nations to climate change.

Some small and low populated islands are without adequate resources to protect their islands, inhabitants, and natural resources. In addition to the risks to human health, livelihoods, and inhabitable space, the pressure to leave islands is often barred by the inability to access the resources needed to relocate. The nations of the Caribbean, Pacific Islands and Maldives are already experiencing considerable impacts of climate change, making efforts to implement climate change adaptation a critical issue for them.[3]

Efforts to combat these environmental changes are ongoing and multinational. Due to their vulnerability and limited contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, some island countries have made advocacy for global cooperation on climate change mitigation a key aspect of their foreign policy.

Greenhouse gas emissions[edit]

Small Island Developing States make minimal contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, with a combined total of less than 1%.[4][3]

Impacts on the natural environment[edit]

Expected impacts on small islands include:[5]

  • extreme weather events
  • changes in sea level
  • increased sensitivity and exposure to the effects of climate change.
  • deterioration in coastal conditions, such as beach erosion and coral bleaching, which will likely affect local resources such as fisheries, as well as the value of tourism destinations.
  • increased inundation, storm surge, erosion, and other coastal hazards caused by sea-level rise, threatening vital infrastructure, settlements, and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities.
  • reduction of already limited water resources to the point that they become insufficient to meet demand during low-rainfall periods by mid-century, especially on small islands (such as in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean)
  • invasion by non-native species increasing with higher temperatures, particularly in mid- and high-latitude islands.

There are many secondary effects of climate change and sea-level rise particular to island nations. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, climate change in the Pacific Islands will cause "continued increases in air and ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and increased rainfall during the summer months and a decrease in rainfall during the winter months".[6] This would entail distinct changes to the small, diverse, and isolated island ecosystems and biospheres present within many of these island nations.

Sea level rise[edit]

One of the dominant manifestations of climate change is sea level rise. NOAA estimates that "since 1992, new methods of satellite altimetry (the measurement of elevation or altitude) indicate a rate of rise of 0.12 inches per year".[7] Similarly NASA calculates that the average sea level rise is 3.41 mm per year and that sea-level rise is directly caused by the expansion of water as it warms and the melting of polar ice caps.[8] Both of these changes are dependent on global warming as a result of climate change. Sea level rise is especially threatening to low-lying island nations because seas are encroaching upon limited habitable land and threatening existing cultures.[9][10] Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of Ocean Physics at Potsdam University in Germany notes "even limiting warming to 2 degrees, in my view, will still commit some island nations and coastal cities to drown."[11]

Research published in 2015 contradicts the claim that rising sea levels will necessarily submerge island nations. Studies by Paul Kench, a geomorphologist at the University of Auckland, have shown that "reef islands change shape and move around in response to shifting sediments, and that many of them are growing in size, not shrinking, as sea level inches upward". At the same time Kench says that "for the areas that have been transformed by human development, such as the capitals of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives, the future is considerably gloomier" because these islands cannot adapt to rising sea levels and are therefore greatly threatened.[12]

Impacts on people[edit]

Climate change poses a risk to food security in many Pacific Islands, impacting fisheries and agriculture.[13] As sea level rises, island nations are at increased risk of losing coastal arable land to degradation as well as salination. Once the limited available soil on these islands becomes salinated, it becomes very difficult to produce subsistence crops such as breadfruit. This would severely impact the agricultural and commercial sector in nations such as the Marshall Islands and Kiribati.[14] In addition, local fisheries would also be affected by higher ocean temperatures and increased ocean acidification. As ocean temperatures rise and the pH of oceans decreases, many fish and other marine species would die out or change their habits and range. As well as this, water supplies and local ecosystems such as mangroves, are threatened by global warming. The tourism sector would be particularly threatened by increased occurrences of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts.[15]

Mitigation and adaptation[edit]

Relocation and migration[edit]

Climate migration has been discussed in popular media as a potential adaptation approach for the populations of islands threatened by sea level rise. A 2015 review in Climatic Change found that these depictions are often sensationalist or problematic, although migration may likely form a part of adaptation. Mobility has long been a part of life in islands, but could be used in combination with local adaptation measures.[3]

International cooperation[edit]

International meeting of Small Island Developing States in 2014.
Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed speaks at the launch of the Climate Vulnerability Monitor in 2010.

The governments of several island nations have made political advocacy for greater international ambition on climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation a component of their foreign policy and international alliances.[16] The Alliance of Small Island States (ASIS) have had some sway in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.[17] The 43 members of the alliance have held the position of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and advocated for this at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, influencing the goals of the Paris Agreement.[18][19] Marshall Islands Prime Minister Tony deBrum was central in forming the High Ambition Coalition at the conference.[20] Meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum have also discussed the issue.[21]

The Maldives and Tuvalu particularly have played a prominent role on the international stage. In 2002, Tuvalu threatened to sue the United States and Australia in the International Court of Justice for their contribution to climate change and for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.[17] The governments of both of these countries have cooperated with environmental advocacy networks, non-governmental organisations and the media to draw attention to the threat of climate change to their countries. At the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry spearheaded an effort to halt negotiations and demand a comprehensive, legally binding agreement.[17]

By country and region[edit]


Climate change in the Caribbean poses major risks to the islands in the Caribbean. The main environmental changes expected to affect the Caribbean are a rise in sea level, stronger hurricanes, longer dry seasons and shorter wet seasons.[22] As a result, climate change is expected to lead to changes in the economy, environment and population of the Caribbean.[23][24][25] Temperature rise of 2 °C above preindustrial levels can increase the likelihood of extreme hurricane rainfall by four to five times in the Bahamas and three times in Cuba and Dominican Republic.[26] Rise in sea level could impact coastal communities of the Caribbean if they are less than 3 metres (10 ft) above the sea. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it is expected that 29 – 32 million people may be affected by the sea level rise because they live below this threshold. The Bahamas is expected to be the most affected because at least 80% of the total land is below the sea level.[27][28]


Temperature change in Fiji, 1901 to 2020.
Climate change in Fiji is an exceptionally pressing issue for the country - as an island nation, Fiji is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, coastal erosion and extreme weather.[29] These changes, along with temperature rise, will displace Fijian communities and will prove disruptive to the national economy - tourism, agriculture and fisheries, the largest contributors to the nation's GDP, will be severely impacted by climate change causing increases in poverty and food insecurity.[29] As a party to both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement, Fiji hopes to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 which, along with national policies, will help to mitigate the impacts of climate change.[30]


A sign on South Tarawa, Kiribati discussing the threat of sea level rise to the island, with its highest point being 3 metres above sea level.

The existence of the nation of Kiribati is imperilled by rising sea levels, with the country losing land every year.[31] In 1999, the uninhabited islands of Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea both disappeared underwater.[32] The government's Kiribati Adaptation Program was launched in 2003 to mitigate the country's vulnerability to the issue.[33] In 2008, fresh water supplies began being encroached by seawater, prompting President Anote Tong to request international assistance to begin relocating the country's population elsewhere.[34]


The Maldives government have adapted infrastructure in capital city Malé to the threats of climate change, including beginning to build a wall around the city.
Climate change in the Maldives is a major issue for the country. As an archipelago of low-lying islands and atolls, many parts of the Maldives are threatened by sea level rise, with some predictions suggesting most of the nation will become uninhabitable during the 21st century. The country is striving to adapt to climate change, and Maldivian authorities have been prominent in international political advocacy to implement climate change mitigation.

Marshall Islands[edit]

The Marshall Islands is a collection of low-lying islands and atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, all less than six feet in average elevation. Due to the geographic and topographic situation of these islands, they are placed in a position of intense risk in terms of exposure to the effects of climate change.[35] Sea level rise has already encroached upon the islands, and high tides and frequent storms continue to threaten local homes and property. Recent research indicates that sea levels have been increasing by 3.4 millimetres (0.13 inches) per year. A one-meter rise could result in the loss of 80 percent of the Majuro Atoll, which is home to half the nation's population.[36] The underwater fresh water supply has been salinated by this influx of seawater. In 2013 over 200 homes were damaged in the capital Majuro, and the airport was forced to close due to particularly high tides.[37]

To a certain extent, the Marshallese are trapped on their islands, such as the Majuro Atoll, when large storms or tides occur, having no recourse to evacuate to higher grounds or neighbouring islands. The geographic isolation of the Marshall Islands renders any disaster caused by climate change especially destructive. Particularly dangerous are king tides, exceptionally high tides, which occur only a few times a year. To preserve their land and fight off tides and storms, residents have resorted to building private sea walls for their immediate protection.[38] A study by Murray Ford which compared aerial photographs of the Wotje Atoll of the Marshall Islands, found that "shorelines interpreted from high resolution satellite imagery captured between 2004 and 2012 indicate that shorelines within this sample of islands are largely in an erosive state".[39] Industries and livelihoods on the Marshall Islands are also threatened by climate change. Fisheries, particularly the tuna industry, are having to adapt to changing ecological inputs.[40] The tourism industry of the Marshall Islands, only recently developed and has even more potential to grow, is seriously threatened by sea level rise and violent storms. Aversion to flying, due to greenhouse gas emissions may also have a role to play.

Satellite Image of Ebeye Island, Marshall Islands

In 2020 Marshall islands President David Kabua called for wealthy nations to pay for "loss and damage" to help ameliorate the effects of climate change on the Marshall Islands.[41] The Marshall Islands have also called for a joint international effort to slow the rate of climate change, especially in regards to increasing sea levels. Following a drought in 2013, the US sent supplies to aid the Marshall Islands.

There is also a historical precedent for the United States to aid the Marshall Islands when it comes to natural climate change and catastrophe. After testing fifty-four nuclear bombs on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands during the 1940s and 1950s, the United States paid $604 million in reparations. These reparations helped to counteract the effects of nuclear fallout on the environment and the people of the Marshall Islands.[42] Considering that the United States is the "largest aggregate polluter of carbon dioxide" in the world, there has been some outcry among the global community to "hold the United States liable" for the effects of increased emissions and climate change.[43] In addition, at the 44th Pacific Islands Forum summit held in 2013, the Marshall Islands proposed the "Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership to galvanize more urgent and concrete action on climate change".[44] As the president of the Marshall Islands noted, this declaration sought to "stave off the dangers of the ever-rising seas" by committing to "bold emissions reductions and renewable and energy efficiency targets".[45] Challenges exist when it comes to communicating the effects of climate change in the Marshall Islands to the mainstream outside world and western media. Other problems also exist when it comes to transferring the western scientific notion of climate change to the people of the Marshall Islands.

Image of Majuro, Marshall Islands

A study by Peter Rudiak-Gould recognizes the need for "climate change communicators" to "carefully consider the transformations introduced by various translations of ‘climate change,’ yet also appreciate ‘mistranslation’ for its ability to render concepts meaningful to local actors and to stimulate citizen–scientist dialogue".[46] On a national governmental level, the Marshall Islands have been extremely proactive, especially for a developing nation, in attempting to arrest climate change. The Marshall Island pledged to decrease emission levels for 2025 by 32% from 2010 levels, and by 2050 to have a net total of zero emissions. While announcing these targets, the President of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak noted that "going low carbon is in everyone’s interests. It improves our economy, our security, our health and our prosperity, particularly in the Pacific and more broadly in the developing world."[47] Global emission rates, will be predominantly determined by the largest emission producers, which include the United States and China.

Former President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak said in 2014, "In the last year alone, my country has suffered through unprecedented droughts in the north, and the biggest ever king tide in the south; we have watched the most devastating typhoons in history leave a trail of death and destruction across the region."[48]

Among the many efforts to protect the culture of the Marshall Islands is an effort to buy land and relocate the people to other locations. Currently several of the biggest relocation sites outside of the Marshall Islands are Hawaii, Washington state, and Springdale, Arkansas, where over 10,000 Marshall Islanders currently live. The Marshall Islanders living outside of the United States participate in Marshallese culture, including voting in national elections by mail.[43] However, the Marshallese who have resettled in Arkansas have encountered many cultural difficulties and differences between the Marshall Islands and Arkansas. Several examples include the different types of available food, the geographic setting, and cultural institutions. As a result of sea level rise, one of the largest issues facing the Marshall Islands is how to preserve cultural and historical traditions if the Marshallese are forced to adapt to a new, totally different area, potentially far away.


The Palau government are concerned about the effects of climate change on the island nation. In 2008 Palau requested that the UN Security Council consider protection against rising sea levels due to climate change.[49]

Tommy Remengesau, the president of Palau, has said:[50]

Palau has lost at least one third of its coral reefs due to climate change related weather patterns. We also lost most of our agricultural production due to drought and extreme high tides. These are not theoretical, scientific losses -- they are the losses of our resources and our livelihoods.... For island states, time is not running out. It has run out. And our path may very well be the window to your own future and the future of our planet.

Solomon Islands[edit]

Between 1947 and 2014, six islands of the Solomon Islands disappeared due to sea level rise, while another six shrunk by between 20 and 62 per cent. Nuatambu Island was the most populated of these with 25 families living on it; 11 houses washed into the sea by 2011.[51]


Temperature change in Tuvalu, 1901 to 2020.
Satellite Image of Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu

Tuvalu is a small Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean. It can be found about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It is made up of nine tiny islands, five of which are coral atolls while the other four consists of land rising from the sea bed. All are low-lying islands with no point on Tuvalu being higher than 4.5m above sea level.[52] Beside Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, sea-level rise is estimated at 1.2 ± 0.8 mm/year.[53] As well as this, the dangerous peak high tides in Tuvalu are becoming higher causing greater danger. In response to sea level rise, Tuvalu is considering resettlement plans in addition to pushing for increased action in confronting climate change at the UN.[54]

See also[edit]


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