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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Countries and Cultures that Disappear Into the Ocean

Article by: Anisa Pontes

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the Institute for Regional and International Studies National Resource Center (IRIS NRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Clock is Ticking

On the 8th of August 2023, 5 years, 348 days, 21 hours, 20 minutes, and 26 seconds is “arguably the most important number in the world” according to climate activists Andrew Boyd and Gan Golan. This number, shown by The Climate Clock, represents the ever-decreasing amount of time left before the earth’s decline. In other words, before the effects of global warming may become irreversible. Can knowledge of this impending deadline incentivize action address global warming and reduce carbon dioxide emissions? The Paris Agreement sets out to limit global warming to “well below 2°C” and ideally only 1.5°C by the end of this century. But while such pledges may get us closer to carbon neutrality, they do not address the immediate threat faced by low-lying island nations that dependent on secure climatic conditions within years, not eight decades.

The Pacific Atoll

Pacific Island nations have vulnerable geographic features and limited capacity to adapt due to the small size of many islands and their low elevation. Despite contributing a combined less than 0.03% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, the island nations in the Pacific will face disproportionate impacts of climate change. In this piece in TIME magazine from 2022, Tuvalu prime minister Natano rings the alarm bells that nations in the Pacific Atoll will become uninhabitable within the next two to three decades. Based on current trajectories, they do not have the luxury of planning for a distant future as it might simply not exist for the Pasifika people. While the disappearance of their islands into the ocean is the most disturbing long-term threat, earlier calling points on the climate change timeline will be livelihood changes and increased food insecurity.

Swimming South

Based on data from 2021, researchers Anthony Richardson, Chhaya Chaudhary, David Schoeman, and Mark John Costello discovered that world region near the equator are particularly at risk of warming sea temperatures, which in turn have detrimental effects on biodiversity as they make local marine environments uninhabitable for many species. This forces marine species to migrate south. In a series of chain events, higher emissions can lead to increased ocean acidity and temperatures, and later to the death of cornerstone species such as coral and fish without a food source.

This is not the first time a changing climate has caused consequences for biodiversity. 252 million years ago global temperatures warmed by 10 degrees Celsius. Researchers found that during that period, a peak in the amount of tropical biodiversity was completely flattened around the equator. Almost 90% of all marine species were killed. Today’s environmental conditions may mimic historical patterns but social, economic, and cultural conditions could not be more different. Pasifika people depend on fish for both food and work as tuna is the main source of revenue on many of the smaller Pacific islands. The Fisheries Forum Agency reported that from 2015 to 2019, there was an increase of 4,600 jobs across the tuna processing and harvest sector. However, trend is predicted to reverse sharply as fish continue swimming away from the Pacific Island regions toward the subtropics. As they migrate potentially beyond the sovereign waters of island nations, populations are left economically vulnerable and food insecure.

The dependence on marine life is also prevalent in the marine tourism sector which is a significant diver of island economies. Islands in the Pacific Atoll are popular destinations for global migrations of sea turtles, manta rays, and other marine megafauna. Alongside pushing key food sources away, warming ocean temperatures also causes these species to flee to cooler waters.

Flood Risk and Salt Water

The main freshwater supplies of most Pacific Islands are their aquifers which are underground reservoirs. Rising sea levels lead salt water to permeate into aquifers and decrease available freshwater supplies. Flooding in agricultural land and municipal areas reduces crop yields and weakens trees due to soil salinity. As a result, Pasifka people have been migrating away from the islands to find more secure futures elsewhere before living conditions worsen. Climate change is not a distant scientific prediction for the Pacific islands, but a daily reality.

The Cultural Impact

The World Bank predicts that 49 million people in East Asia and the Pacific will be forcibly displaced by 2050. What will come to most people’s minds it that climate change-related displacement and migration on this scale poses a threat to economic stability or the social fabric of societies. Often overlooked is that it also results in “the loss of ancestral homelands, unique long-lasting ties to land, and vital cultural identities.” A literal loss of the lands themselves is the existential threat facing Pacific island countries with rising sea levels. No country has ever before disappeared in such a way, thus there is no precedent for the legal, economic, and cultural identities of people whose home has gone. As stated by Kausea Natano, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, “Now, through no fault of our own, we will soon have to abandon the ocean, land, and sky that have forged our cultures and identities.”

A Global Challenge

The divide between the countries most heavily impacted by climate change is tied to the divide between the Global North and Global South. Countries that have reached high levels of development like the United States, Europe, Japan, China, and others are responsible for most carbon dioxide emissions year after year. States like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands have launched the Rising Nations Initiative to protect the statehood of Pacific Island counties. They aim to fill gaps in awareness, legal frameworks, and political commitment. Pacific Island governments believe it is of dire importance that states commit to a global agreement that works to guarantee the permanent existence of Pacific Islands instead of planning for an unpromised future.  

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