In the future, rising sea levels are going to drive people out of their low-lying communities and up to higher ground. But you might not know it’s going on right now.
As Luanne reported recently, the government of the Maldives is facing the prospect of inundation with admirable foresight by moving to a carbon zero economy by the end of the next decade and adding a splash of green to its luxury status.
The country is also going to use future profits to fund a wholesale relocation of the population to another part of the world before the island chain disappears under the waves by 2100.
Ninety years to prepare – sounds like luxury indeed if you’re from the Carteret Islands.
For the last 20 years, the inhabitants of this South Pacific atoll have been struggling to keep out rising tides, planting mangroves and erecting sea defences, but now the population of 2,600 are in full evacuation m0de, funded by the Papua New Guinea government.
Like the Maldives, the Carteret islands are low – just 170cm above sea-level at their highest point – and every high tide swamps the islanders’ efforts at subsistence agriculture and raises the salinity of the soil even further. It’s untenable, so they’re off.
Dan Box of The Ecologist has been watching the Carteretians rebuild their homes at Tinputz on the coast of Bougainville, and is currently preparing to visit the Carteret islands to see for himself how they’re faring.
Experts aren’t certain that the islands are being wiped out by global warming. This is a volcanic island chain, so sea floor movement is to be expected. But if independently rising sea levels aren’t primarily to blame, it could be the degradation of the coral that forms the backbone of the islands. When this dies, islands lose their natural defences against the sea – and coral is fragile enough to be killed by something as seemingly innocuous as sun screen, let alone the severely destabilizing effects of warmer seas.
However, as George Monbiot notes at The Guardian, these aren’t the world’s first “climate change refugees” – and they’re certainly not going to be the last.
For example, a rise of 20cm (well within the 88cm upper boundary estimated by the IPCC report in 2001) will make three quarters of a million people homeless in Nigeria alone.
We’re already coming up with innovative new ways to build flood-resistant homes, but until these become a widespread reality, we’re faced with the modern-day version of the King Canute story – and the best we can do is get out of the way.
Image: Addu Atoll, Maldives – nattu