The crescendo over climate change is getting louder by the day. No, not about time; much later than anyone of us should be comfortable. After all, we are breathing in more carbon dioxide now than ever in our existence.
Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory reported on Sunday, May 12, that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is over 415 parts per million; this is far higher than at any point in the last 800,000 years, way before there were homo sapiens.
So it’s understandable that our ancestors probably had no idea that their future generations would become ‘climate refugees’.
The dictionary defines climate refugee as “a person who has been forced to leave their home as a result of the effects of climate change on their environment.” Author Essan El-Hinnawi discusses the same in the book Environmental Refugees.
Additionally, in the United Nations General Assembly meeting, President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés also stressed that we are the last generation who can truly defeat climate change, and that 10 years down the line, the situation will worsen and climate refugees will become common.
The sitting ducks
In 2018, the Climate Vulnerable Forum Summit identified 48 countries, mostly islands, that would disappear from the face of the planet by 2100 if the situation continues to deteriorate.
The Guardian, in a 2016 report, revealed that rising sea levels had claimed five islands in the Pacific Ocean, as per a group of Australian researchers conducting the first-ever study on the ill effects of climate change.
These were part of the Solomon Islands, many portions of which have eroded. Though one archipelago from the cluster of islands was uninhabited, sinking of the other islands destroyed livelihoods and forced people to flee.
Nuatambu Island, home to 25 families, has lost half of its habitable area since 2011.
To the west of the Pacific Ocean is the Polynesian island country Tuvalu, which will likely become inhabitable by 2050; its neighbour Kiribati is expected to be submerged by 2100.
In Kiribati, the rise in temperatures has caused an increase in water levels, which are “threatening to shrink the island with an increase in storm damage, destruction of its crop-growing lands, and ultimately, displace its people long before the islands are submerged”. The major problem for this island country is access to fresh water—frequent storms have accumulated freshwater under atolls, commonly known as ‘water lenses’. Meanwhile, dwindling resources have pushed the islanders to Australia and Philippines in search of a better habitat, said the Guardian.
Other island countries in Oceania, namely Fiji, Tokelau and The Marshall Islands, are also at risk; the former’s residents have been migrating in droves to the Philippines and Australia.
“There remain only a few years before we exceed carbon dioxide levels that will make the temperature rise to levels that will see many parts of the Pacific disappear,” Baron Waqa, president of Nauru, a country in Oceania, had said.
Are we there already then?
Closer home is the popular and heavily frequented Maldives. “The Maldives stands at the forefront of the climate change battle. We are one of the most vulnerable countries on Earth and, therefore, need to adapt to climate change,” Maldives Vice President Hassan had said, nearly a decade ago.
Rising sea levels—up to 100 cm a year—are expected to submerge Maldives by 2100. The major threat to this island country is “tourism, with its main attractions being the coral reefs. Poor waste disposal methods pose a grave threat to these reefs,” said World Bank Lead Environmental Economist Richard Damania.
Survival of the fittest
The government of Kiribati has purchased land 2,000 km from Fiji to enable its citizens to settle there without hassle. Climate change has also been incorporated into the legal framework of some countries.
In New Zealand, a new category of visa has been created for Pacific Islanders based on island displacement; this makes it the first nation in the world to provide such a solution.
Australia, on the other hand, is not a stable option anymore as heavy migration is already taking its toll there—half of the Great Barrier Reef is dead due to increased human activities in the country.
However, miraculously, there are also reports of climate change benefitting some areas of the Pacific region. In a report, National Geographic highlighted that some islands have, in fact, grown in size; Tuvalu’s main atoll, Funafuti, has gained 32 hectares in the last 115 years. Its government, meanwhile, has ensured a special passport for its residents, so that they can settle on safer lands.
Indian territory at risk
The situation in India also is grim, considering its long coastline and heavily populated coastal towns and cities. The World Bank predicts that “by 2020, pressure on India’s water, air, soil, and forests is expected to become the highest in the world”.
The Subcontinent also has its own islands to worry about, namely Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Lakshadweep is a group of islands on the west coast of the country. In January 2019, one of its islands sank. And yet, even today, maps of the Survey of India show Parali I as a small island in the Bangaram atoll of the archipelago. Several factors, such as turbulent seas due to a rise in levels, changing ocean currents, and decaying of corals, have contributed to this.
“Lakshadweep, the only coral island chain in India, has clearly started showing the impacts of climate change,” said P C Hameed, deputy collector at Agatti Island.
The situation of corals on these islands particularly worsened after El Niño in 2010 and 2016, weakening the colonies. Scientists also believe that the rise in temperatures in the Arabian Sea is affecting the health of the corals, which play a major role in breaking the waves.
A two-decade-long study by the Oceans and Coasts Program of the Nature Conservation Foundation has found that the absolute coral cover in these islands has reduced from 51.6% in 1998 to 11% in 2017, a staggering 40% decline. In some situations, the corals around the islands have adapted to the warmth of the waters, but the rate of growth is slow and isn’t protecting the islands from storms or surges. This has affected the livelihoods of the islanders, as coconut trees tend to fall in high winds and fish numbers decline in rough seas.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands
This group of islands is located in the Bay of Bengal. The climate here has seen a complete shift after the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake.
The 2009 Forest Survey of India Report revealed a huge loss in forest cover on the island. This, in turn, led to the loss of 97% of the total mangrove cover, which then triggered an immediate change in the climatic conditions. The tsunami also led to a large reduction in the land area of the Andaman Islands.
In cases of islands, the rule of land erosion and accretion applies. When the sea takes away from one part of an island, it replenishes another. But this century, the rate of erosion has become higher than the rate of accretion, due to which islands are becoming smaller, facing imminent disappearance.
Though a natural process, it is being hastened by human-induced climate change. Islanders in India, who are already barely a few metres above sea level, are not being looked after by the government, left alone to battle the ever-increasing impact of climate change.
A small window of hope
Nonetheless, the United Nations has been offering constant support to the worldwide problems of climate change and climate refugees. It, however, also warned last year that we have 12 years to save our planet.
Hence, individual countries complying with the Paris Agreement is a must. Governments need to take the initiative and devote at least a quarter of their respective total budget towards safeguarding the sinking islands of their territory, thereby also cutting down on the number of climate refugees.
Amrita Deshmukh is a Writing Analyst at Qrius.