Small Island Countries in the World’s Oceans are Threatened by Rising Seas

By Brent Probinsky

Eleuthera, Bahamas – Throughout the world’s vast oceans, small island countries from the Bahamas, 48 miles off the east coast of Florida, to Samoa in the South Pacific, face an existential threat from sea level rise caused by the Climate Crisis. It’s causing severe droughts in the U.S. Midwest, wild fires in California, major destructive hurricanes in several U.S. coastal cities and extreme heat waves in Europe killing thousands. But these 41 small island developing states (SIDS) including Grenada, Barbados and St. Lucia in the Caribbean and the Solomon Islands and Fiji in the Pacific, are facing no less than complete extinction from rising oceans within 40 to 80 years.  They are the vulnerable small island countries in the world that are on the front line of the Climate Crisis. According to the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Change Assessment, released in November of 2018 and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report of October of 2018, the world’s oceans rose 8 inches since the advent of the industrial revolution, the biggest increase occurring just since the 1990s. Climate scientists predict that the seas will continue to  rise 2 to 8 feet by 2100 and possibly much higher. They estimate that after 2100 the seas could continue to rise several more feeteach decade if we continue “business as usual” and there are no immediate and drastic reductions of greenhouse gases. The world’s small atolls or low-lying, limestone-based islands have an average elevation of just two meters and in Bahamas, only one meter. These small countries are the “canaries in the coal mine” of the Climate Crisis and resulting sea level rise. The wealthy, industrialized countries are in fact mainly responsible for the Climate Crisis as the major past and present contributors of greenhouse gases. The economies of these small island countries, whether based on tourism, farming or fishing, will be crippled by the Climate Crisis and rising seas. As the surrounding sea begins to over wash and flood low lying coastal zones of these islands, where most of their populations live, they will flee, first inland to higher ground and eventually be forced to emigrate en masse to other countries.  Will they be welcomed into the wealthy, industrialized countries that are responsible for sea level rise or will the fleeing populations of millions be turned away and live precariously as “climate refugees?”  Ghastly images of homeless “boat people” come into view. In southeast Florida, cities are implementing costly public projects to raise roads, install drains and build pumping stations to attempt to adapt to the coming sea level rise and massive inland flooding. But the small island countries of the world are poorer and don’t have the financial and technical resources to develop and implement adaptation strategies to sea level rise or to oversee an organized wholesale population emigration to other countries. The 41 small island countrieshave a combined population of only 50 million and collectively contribute less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gases.  As the least responsible for the Climate Crisis they are the most at risk.  Sea level rise is caused by two phenomena. The first is increased temperature of the oceans that causes water to expand.  Ocean warming is responsible for 30 percent of sea level rise. The world’s oceans absorb 93 percent of the heat that’s trapped in the atmosphere from the human caused greenhouse effect.  If the oceans didn’t absorb this increased heat, the planet’s atmosphere would be a shocking 97 degrees hotter!  The earth would be uninhabitable.  God bless the oceans. Thus far they have saved us from self-inflicted extinction.  But the oceans are reaching their heat and carbon absorption limits. They will eventually become heat and carbon “sources” instead of heat and carbon “sinks.” The journal, Science, reported that the oceans are warming 40 percent faster than the U.N. Panel on Climate Change predicted 5 years ago. The hottest ocean temperature on record was 2017. That record was quickly broken in 2018. Rivers, as it is written, inevitably run into the sea. The other major contributor to sea level rise, 70%, is from the melting of the continents’ great mountain glaciers and the giant Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Antarctica is melting 6 times faster than in the 1980s, losing 3 trillion tons of ice since 1992.  The Antarctic ice sheet holds 61% of the Earth’s fresh water and if melted entirely it would cause sea levels to rise by a staggering 190 feet. Ocean warming from the Climate Crisis is causing massive bleaching and death of living coral reefs that surround these small island countries. The other great threat to marine organisms including living coral is ocean acidification. The oceans absorb twenty-five percent of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere from human activity. Plants through photosynthesis absorb another twenty-five percent.  Phytoplankton, the tiny plants in the upper, sunlit layers of the oceans, produce 50 to 85 percent of the oxygen in the world through photosynthesis. We easily forget about the ocean’s plants that sustain all life. As the oceans absorb carbon, they become more acidic and prevent many marine animals such as coral polyps from developing their exoskeletons.  Ocean warming and acidification have caused the death of more than half of the corals in the world. Ninety percent of SIDS are in the tropics and most are surrounded by large coral reef systems. The Bahamas, for example, has the third largest reef system in the world, comprised of patch reefs and barrier reefs such as the 200-kilometer-long Andros Barrier Reef, a spectacular vertical wall that descends 2,000 meters into the Tongue of the Ocean.  Casuarina McKinney-Lambert, Executive Director of Bahamas Reef Environmental Foundation BREEF, that works to protect the country’s coral reefs, informed this writer that 90 % of the Bahamas reefs have been severely damaged from coral bleaching. They are threatened with total loss within a few decades by the twin perils of ocean warming and acidification.  BREEF is dedicated to educating the public about the importance of coral reefs and how to protect and regenerate them. Coral reefs are a popular feature of many island countries’ tourism-based economies. They also provide habitat for fresh seafood to local populations and export.  Coral reefs are the largest living structures in the world. They act as natural protective barriers that surround many islands by diffusing waves and powerful storm surges that would otherwise erode coastal zones.  Coastal mangrove forests are another important natural barrier to rising oceans and storm surge, but are rapidly being destroyed by rising seas, coastal development and pollution. Sea levels do not rise at a steady, linear, and predictable amount each year. Ocean waves surge with extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones that are increasing in intensity due to hotter atmospheric and ocean temperatures. Rising sea levels will first flood an island nation’s coastal zone where most of the population lives, destroying crops, damaging infrastructure such as ports, roads, airports, hospitals, power generating plants and government facilities.  Food and fresh water supplies, housing and job security will be at risk.   On most tropical islands, rainfall seeps into an underground fresh water lens that floats atop a layer of salt water.  For centuries, small island countries have relied upon underground aquifers for their supply of fresh water.  As the rising saltwater oceans encroach onto these islands, the underground fresh water lens turns brackish. Without fresh water in remote islands, survival is precarious.  Severe water and food shortages will occur. Water borne diseases will spread and hospitals will be overwhelmed.  A study published in the journal, Science Advances, in April 2018, found that if sea levels continue to rise at present rates, most low atoll island nations will become uninhabitable by 2060 due to salt water intrusion from wave-driven over wash that compromises freshwater aquifers and destroys coastal infrastructure. Most of these island countries, with a few notable exceptions such as Kiribati, in Micronesia in the Central Pacific and a few countries in the Caribbean, have no comprehensive programs for adaption to climate change or protecting vulnerable coastal populations. They have not developed any plans or set aside funds for an orderly resettlement of populations to higher ground or mass emigration from their island homes.  Kiribati, with a population of 110,000, is one of the few island nations that has developed a comprehensive national plan to “migrate with dignity.” It purchased land in Fiji for agriculture and future population migration. Kiribati as well as Tuvalu, a Polynesian island country of six small coral atolls with a population of 12,000, are both looking to Australia and New Zealand as migration destinations and are preparing their populations with better education and labor skills to help them settle in the new counties. In the Caribbean, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda have adopted disaster risk reduction programs such as comprehensive weather data analysis technology and the preparation of maps for predicting the effects of seawater encroachment and land elevations for population movement. But these small countries have limited resources for prediction, preparedness and adaption to sea level rise. Most small island countries in the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Caribbean are wholly unprepared to protect their populations and provide mechanisms for adaptation to sea level rise, whether it be protecting infrastructure or planning for mass emigration. The reaction of these small island counties to emergencies caused by the Climate Crisis will be ad hoc and they won’t be able to effectively respond to the catastrophes and upheaval that threaten their land and people.  Should these island nations seek to hold the industrialized countries liable to pay the costs of economic disruption and population resettlement through the creation of new international treaties?   Should they resort to lawsuits against the large oil companies to hold them responsible for the destruction of their islands, their economies and the costs of adaptation and resettlement elsewhere? Lawsuits have been brought by the State of New York against ExxonMobil for hiding their knowledge since the 1970s about climate change and placing their shareholders at risk of holding stranded assets if fossil fuels remain in the ground. Nine U.S. cities and counties from New York to California have filed law suits against large oil companies to pay the cost of environmental damage.  Should small island developing states consider similar legal remedies?  The Torres Straight Islands lie off the northern coast of Queensland, Australia and are inhabited by 6,800 indigenous people. They are making a claim at the United Nations Human Rights Committee against Australia for sea level rise that is inundating their low-lying islands and threaten their total destruction. The Torres Straight islanders claim Australia has violated their fundamental human rights under the Paris climate agreement by failing to take adequate measures to reduce carbon emissions that cause sea level rise. Australia is the largest exporter of coal in the world, the dirtiest fossil fuel and coal is the dominant source of energy in the country. The Torres Straight islanders claim that under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Australia has an obligation to protect their lives, family and culture. They want Australia to pay for sea walls and embankments that could protect the islands from the onslaught of rising seas. Salt water is already destroying ancestral burial sites and turning underground fresh water brackish. The Paris Agreement of 2015 acknowledged the relationship between human rights and the Climate Crisis including the right to life, food, water, health, housing, development and self-determination. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has acknowledged that the right to a healthy environment is fundamental for humankind and requires states to “prevent significant environmental damages within and outside their territory.”   Drastic reductions in carbon emissions must be accomplished within 13 years to keep the Earth’s atmosphere from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, the tipping point beyond which the heating of the globe will become irreversible.  Global carbon emissions are not decreasing. They are increasing worldwide at the rate of 2.5% per year. For thousands of years, people have inhabited these small island countries. They gaze out on the vast ocean that surrounds them, nurtured them and defined their unique way of life.  Now the see the ocean as a disquieting force influenced by powers beyond their control. 

Brent L. Probinsky is a lawyer and environmental activist in Florida.