Photo: Considering Plan B for island nations in the face of climate change

The people of Kiribati are threatened by rising sea levels. (Credit: via Flickr)

By Ryan Kadowaki, Climate Change and Clean Energy Program Coordinator

For those whose geography education never went beyond memorizing provincial capitals (or who didn't have access to GeoSafari growing up), Kiribati is an island nation in the South Pacific. This tiny chain of coral atolls was in the news last week as it explores the purchase of territory in "nearby" Fiji. This sobering development would mark the first time that a nation has invested in a climate change relocation plan.

Because of its elevation (on average less than two metres above sea level), Kiribati and other low-lying island nations (referred to as AOSIS in the climate change policy world) are on the front lines, trying to adapt to rising sea levels. The rising tides are already degrading the islands' water supply and ability to grow crops. The IPCC's conservative estimates of sea level rise over the next century show that not only would the livelihoods of the current generation be affected, but the entire culture could be at risk of fragmentation and extinction. If a nation loses its territory, do its people become like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, rightless people whose futures are in the hands of other governments?

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The reality of larger forced migrations is a phenomenon with which the world will likely have to come to terms. Back in 2010, a boat filled with 500 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka landed on B.C.'s coast, prompting widespread debate about Canada's role in accepting international refugees. What if the influx were several orders of magnitude greater? There have always been political asylum seekers, but adding an unprecedented number of environmental refugees to the mix would increase the scale of this public policy challenge.

Obviously, this is a situation that all parties wish to avoid. Major emitters, such as Canada and the United States, need to agree on a path to reduce emissions significantly to minimize future sea level rise and the ensuing displacement. But will it be quick enough to prevent more vulnerable nations from having to explore their options, envisioning a future that is radically different from 2012?

This is just one of a handful of social justice issues that are wrapped up in the global challenge presented by climate change. If we can meet the challenge, we can ensure that future geography nerds will still have to memorize all 196 countries. Much more importantly, we would ensure that the communities, cultures and environments in diverse regions of the world remain intact and the people living there can feel hope instead of despair for their future.

March 13, 2012

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