Written by Ilan Kelman.

The media, and sometimes even scientific journals, frequently suggest that Pacific islands are sinking and disappearing due to climate change. We are told that it is an immense security threat and that we must prepare for the coming climate wars. Fears about ‘climate change refugees’ overlap nightmare visions of helpless communities slipping beneath the waves.

How credible are these narratives? It turns out that much research struggles to support these doomsday scenarios. They are not entirely wrong all the time, but the mantra of Pacific islanders fleeing from their drowning islands is addressed in both physical science and social science research.

Physical science observations of low-lying islands under measurable sea-level rise show some islands eroding, some islands accreting, some islands changing shape without much loss or gain of land, and some islands changing little. Two conclusions result. First, some islands might be inundated or eroded, but they are rarely sinking. Second, islands are not inevitably vanishing due to climate change.

These questions—physical, social, legal and ethical—are not new. Pacific islanders have been dealing with significant social and environmental changes over the centuries.

Climate change impacts vary and appear in many ways. Tropical cyclones appear to be decreasing in frequency and increasing in intensity due to climate change. Storms have previously caused major changes to islands, ruining some, while building up others.

On 21 October 1972, when Tuvalu was the Ellice Islands, Cyclone Bebe inundated and damaged Funafuti. It created a coral rubble wall that was larger than some other islets around the atoll. Even if islands gain territory under sea-level rise, such rapid geomorphological changes would make living there difficult, especially with respect to freshwater.

Coral reefs prevent many island communities from experiencing the Pacific Ocean’s full power. The lagoons are important food sources. With the oceans absorbing heat from the atmosphere and their temperature rising, many coral reefs are expected to bleach and die. If climate change leads to high coral mortality without recovery, then low-lying islands could be exposed to the full force of the Pacific Ocean currents and waves, enhancing erosion, undermining food supplies, and contaminating freshwater.

Simultaneously, the seas absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, when combined with water to produce carbonic acid, make the oceans more acidic. Ocean acidification could further harm reefs and shorelines, although many unknowns remain regarding the biochemical and geochemical consequences.

Social science research on the impact of climate change on the Pacific islands is diverse. The clearest message is from the islanders themselves. They do not wish to be labelled as hopeless, hapless victims desperately running from their homes without recourse. If Pacific islander communities are destroyed by climate change’s impacts, which is not definite, and if the islanders choose to move, which is also not definite, then quite rightly, they wish to control the migration process, and not be told what to do when.

Pacific islanders request resources, facilitation, and exchange of advice so that they can understand and make decisions in their own ways. Migration is one possibility to consider, especially since Pacific peoples have always been migrants and population movement has always been part of their life—but it has been migration by choice, not forced migration, and should stay this way. Once migration-related decisions are made, further choices emerge regarding the destination and the desired level of autonomy or sovereignty.

Solutions have also been proposed for staying in place. Suggestions include building up the islands to avoid being flooded, as well as settlements floating above (and possibly anchored to), inundated islands.

Any option entails unavoidable, major changes to Pacific island and islander lifestyles and cultures. Not all islanders wish to see these transformations, preferring instead to stay in their familiar homes and environments. A moral dilemma manifests about whether or not people should be permitted to pass away on their own terms or forced to leave.

These questions—physical, social, legal and ethical—are not new. Pacific islanders have been dealing with significant social and environmental changes over the centuries. Examples are Christianity, tinned food, the internet, and previous shifts in the climate and sea level.

Throughout history, volcanic eruptions have led to island evacuations without the inhabitants knowing whether or not they would return. Pacific examples include Manam Island, Papua New Guinea in 2004 and Niua Fo’ou, Tonga in 1946. Colonial powers also have a scandalous record of forcibly resettling Pacific islanders to conduct nuclear testing and mining.

Given the rich history and deep experience of migration among Pacific island peoples, climate change strategies can learn from other fields. Disaster and development studies are especially relevant. Human responses to the changing environment—often with catastrophic effects for communities—are exactly what disaster research has examined for decades. Examples are rapid-onset events such as tsunamis and slowly developing cycles such as El Niño.

Climate change is one more challenge for the islanders. It must be addressed. Yet it sits beside other environmental changes which are both human-influenced, and entirely natural.

Climate change adaptation thus becomes a subset of disaster risk reduction by redressing vulnerabilities to all possible environmental and non-environmental changes, trends, and shifts. It is, in effect, development, aiming for safe and healthy homes and livelihoods—as has happened throughout human history.

Contemporary climate change is one major challenge amongst many. It is undoubtedly, highly disruptive and is imposed on Pacific islanders from beyond its control. Its consequences are not inevitable and it must be handled within the context of all the other major challenges (and opportunities) that it presents. In essence, this means it must be handled on the Pacific islanders’ own terms.

Ilan Kelman is a Reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London, England and a Professor II at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. This article is a based on Kelman’s article in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management (2017)Follow Ilan: @IlanKelman.Image Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr

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