The Inequities of Climate Change and the Small Island Experience

Islands. The word conjures up images of warm water, the bright white sands of pristine beaches, and blissful escape from our crowded, fast-paced lives. This tourist imagery ofsecluded enclave is an imposed ideal that for many island residents provokes an exaggerated sense of isolation and abandonment. Island nations, or Small Island Developing States (SIDS) as the United Nations refers to island countries, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, especially rising sea-levels and the increase incidence of hurricanes and other violent storms. Yet, when storms wreak havoc, island coastlines erode, and fresh water aquifers are tainted with saltwater intrusion, tourists simply change their travel plans. The day-to-day reality of climate change and its impacts on the island nations is muted or invisible to those whose distant homes and fossil fuel consumption patterns are largely responsible for this increasing chaos and degradation.

There are 47 island nations scattered across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans and some 52 island territories such as Puerto Rico, French Polynesia or the Falkland Islands. Some island countries are large, continental islands that broke away from larger landmasses, such as Greenland or the Philippines. Others result from underwater eruptions or coral reefs. Island species, languages, and cultures are unique because they evolved in isolation. The adaptation of plants, animals and people to their environment is highly specialized, visible, and exquisite. Delicate island environments produce extreme beauty, as seen in the bird of paradise plant; a high degree of specialization, such as a terrestrial coconut crab that lives in underground tunnels during the day and comes out at night to shred coconuts with its huge pinchers; toxic or dangerous creatures like the lion fish with its deadly quills; and, genetic limitations as those evident on the island of Pingelap where colorblindness is rampant in the human population. Islands are home to unique forms of life. And because of their obvious limitations – there is only so much land, water, or soil – the human impacts on fragile and highly specialized ecosystems are amplified. These miniature worlds serve as our canary in the coal mine for climate change, warning of the destructive impacts well underway. The problem is, global crises are many and our global attention is easily diverted. No one is checking on the canary.

One of the most remarkable features about the water in our oceans is the critical role it plays in moderating our climate. In warmer weather oceans cool the air, and when the temperature drops, our oceans warm the air. Historically, the ocean has had a stabilizing effect on the earth’s climate. Today, with carbon emissions creating a greenhouse effect on the planet that warms the earth’s temperatures, causes the oceans to expand, water temperatures to rise, melts polar ice at a faster rate, and raises the level of the sea, our oceans now play a major role in destabilizing local weather patterns and our global climate. While climate change is now an acknowledged crisis confronting our planetary way of life, those most responsible are largely sheltered from its extreme impacts. The United States with 4% of the world’s population is responsible for one-quarter of the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. Island nations are responsible for 3/100th of 1 percent of global emissions. People with access to resources – and the major consumers of fossil fuels – are better able to insulate themselves and their families from the adverse consequences of climate change. Drought, desertification, extreme weather, crop failure, tropical illness, and sea-level rise are easier to respond to in wealthy nation. For poor people and poor nations, climate change creates incremental burdens to existing vulnerabilities and diminishes their ability to adapt.

According to the World Health Organization, SIDS are acutely vulnerable to climate change because of their small size, isolation, limited fresh water and other natural resources, fragile economies, often dense populations, poorly developed infrastructures, limited financial and human resources and exposure to extreme weather events. The scarcity of land on islands means that every acre is precious and needed to sustain local populations. Island populations do not have the luxury of moving, or evading the impacts of climate change. New Zealand, for example, allows 17 people a year from Tuvalu to emigrate. The Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific, is another case in point.

The Marshallese people are quintessential survivors. For centuries they have endured on tiny pieces of land that average just 7 feet above sea-level. There is no high ground. And, as with many island nations, the soil is poor, and agricultural resources are limited. The Marshallese people have survived every peril nature can conjure – tidal waves, typhoons, drought, crop failure, and disease. In the last century, the people even endured the equivalent of nuclear war for 12 years as the United States exposed the entire population and every island to dangerous levels of radiation from atmospheric atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests. The Marshallese still suffer from the lingering environmental and human health consequences of nuclear war games.

Now these islands are experiencing an increase in extreme weather events, including droughts and storms, rising tides, ocean acidification, coral bleaching and disease, surging tides, and increased erosion as a result of climate change. Each of these impacts affects the ecology and the culture of the Marshall Islands; the entire culture revolves around vital connections to land and family, and it is difficult for outsiders to comprehend what it means from a Marshallese perspective to see the graves of your ancestors and traditional leaders succumb to the seas.

If more typical consequences of climate change fail to get the attention of world leaders and consumers, perhaps they will be more alarmed by the nuclear waste storage facility that hovers perilously close to the rising seas in the Marshall Islands. The U.S. Government created the facility as an effort to clean up the islands after the testing period. The Marshall Islands Government can no more conjure the technical and financial resources to relocate or fortify the structure than it can restrain the emboldened seas. Who is responsible if rising seas submerge the nuclear waste facility because of political inertia on climate change? Are the U.S. and French governments absolved of their responsibilities to clean up the radiological contamination on Pacific islands if the tides encroach on the former testing sites?

There is also a new phenomenon occurring in the Marshall Islands and other coral atolls nations, such as Tuvalu or Kiribati, where the increase in sea-level pressurizes the fresh water lens underneath the islands and literally causes the water to burst through the land and flood the islands. This occurrence is so new that neither Western science nor the Marshallese language has developed a term to describe it.

Western scientists offer only a dismal forecast for the future of the Marshall Islands. Thomas Ackerman, a climate scientist at the University of Washington recently speculated that if there are no changes in carbon emissions, because of “…a combination of sea level rise… ocean warming and acidification…and changes in rainfall patternsŠ[the] ultimate result will be the abandonment of the atolls…”

The predictions of scientists are particularly problematic given that most of the political will to meaningfully address climate change must come from the major carbon emitters, not the island states. The adverse consequences of climate change become increasingly acute during each year of our global paralysis on the issue. Our failure to take action threatens the ability of species to survive on their islands.

While island populations are not in a position to control the fossil fuel addictions of developed nations, they are not passive victims without agency on the climate change issue. Island leaders have banded together as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) at the United Nations and created a political bloc to advocate for their unique needs related to climate change. Regional organizations, such as the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and Caricom, the Caribbean region’s equivalent, work with the United Nations and island governments to strengthen adaptations to climate change and reduce vulnerability. SIDS are also exploring an alliance with Arctic communities as part of a recent venture called Many Strong Voices, a five-year action plan to link research and advocacy, and support communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (

In the Marshall Islands, the government and business community are examining local opportunities to help mitigate the impacts of climate change through measures such as dredging policy, waste management, coastal construction, and community outreach and education.

Island leaders are vocal; they want their perspectives on climate change heard, and are demanding that the world come to terms with the thousands of years of island history and culture that Western behavior now imperils. Island leaders are putting a human face on a concept that remains abstract to continent dwellers:

Š (t)he Marshall Islands is a country on the frontline of climate change. Our difficult situation is made more precarious for the future by the lack of progress in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. We see little evidence that there will be a concerted effort by the countries primarily responsible for climate change – the industrialized and rich countries – will do anything serious until they feel the effects of climate change on their own bodies. The tragic results of the recent hurricanes of death and destruction are just appetizers for what is to come (Hiroshi Yamamura, Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, in a statement to the 22nd Special Session of the United Nations ,1999).

Good preparation and disaster reduction strategies are crucial but in the end there is only so much a small island state can do to protect itself from the catastrophic impact of a hurricane, cyclone, typhoon or tropical stormŠ Crop damage can wipe out an entire year of agricultural production; damage to productive lands can hamper development for years afterwards. Critical funding earmarked for social or infrastructural investment must be redirected to meet emergency and medium term rehabilitation requirements. Potential investors will think twice before putting their money into venturesŠ (Aliioiaga Feturi Elisaia, in a statement to the United Nations General Assembly 2004).

Climate change has thrown thousands of years of history on its head. The same isolation of the islands which brought creativity, adaptability, exotic species, unique languages and diverse cultures now serves as an impediment because the chaos of climate change is invisible to distant, developed countries. The world needs to protect and draw on the depths of its cultural, linguistic and biodiversity because a deep arsenal is required to respond to a problem with the complexity and magnitude of climate change. As the United States and the international community flounder, action and timetables remain as remote politically as the distant islands. Our inability to enact change threatens the existence of countless small island nations and their people. There is hope and potential in the traditional ecological knowledge of island peoples and their ingenuity, but we need to find ways to incorporate their finely honed adaptation skills into the international arena. While islands may be distant in our psyches, we need to remember that our planet is also a remote island in the universe and its future, like that of the Marshall Islands, is ultimately one and the same.

What to do?

As Election Day approaches, voters should consider the policies of the two major candidates with regard to climate change. Both Obama and McCain agree that the warming of the planet is the result of human activities and warrants federal action, but they would pursue very different energy policies as presidents. Obama wants to invest in alternative energies, including $150 billion to further develop fuel-efficient cars and subsidies for ethanol and biofuels. He is not opposed to nuclear power, but he finds the current U.S. nuclear waste storage plan inadequate and will not permit additional nuclear plants until there is a viable solution for the waste. Obama is also willing to allow some domestic drilling to attenuate the current energy crisis. For McCain, nuclear power is the centerpiece of his energy plan. He wants to construct 45 new nuclear reactors in the United States, a 40% increase for our current level. McCain also promotes domestic oil drilling as a viable solution for the current energy crisis, and is opposed to subsidies for alternative energies.

If we return our attention to the Marshall Islands, the island nation serves as a poignant example of the dangers associated with nuclear power. We know from Marshallese gravestones, as well as the psychological and physical scars of the people, that radiation profoundly alters human health and the environment. We know from the nuclear waste storage facility that hovers precariously close to the Pacific Ocean that radioactive waste threatens the well-being of countless unborn generations. It is reckless to pursue nuclear energy because the risks of cataclysmic danger outweigh benefits and other forms of energy are available. Radiation releases are worldwide events. We don’t have the right to risk the safety and well-being of others so we can consume more energy in the United States.

The survival of island people, species, cultures and languages depends on the United States taking bold action to reduce its contributions to climate change. The United States must commit to and go beyond the reductions in carbon emissions in the Kyoto Protocols, and invest in alternative energies (including subsidies or tax incentives for ethanol and biofuels as well as wind, solar and geothermal energy) that will quench our thirst for fossil fuels.

HOLLY M. BARKER served as the advisor to the Republic of the Marshall Islands Embassy for 18 years and now teaches anthropology as a full-time lecturer a the University of Washington. Her latest book is Consequential Damages of Nuclear War – The Rongelap Report, by Barbara Rose Johnston and HOLLY M. BARKER (Left Coast Press 2008). She can be contacted at