First of all – whoa – hi guys. It’s Friday. How did that happen? Where did the week go? Why do I still have 13 things on my to-do list that I cannot cross off? Should I just cross them off anyway and pretend?
All of these questions have probably crossed your mind, including “where the heck are those spinach kids, anyway?” Our most sincere apologies for this week. It appears that we took a petite vacance,as the French would say. We were actually here:
Just kidding. We were actually just out to lunch. For three days.
But we’re back! And since we’ve got vacations on the brain, I thought that this would be a good time to talk about my life-long dream #5, which is to take three months off of life at some point and travel around Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the rest of the south Pacific.
As it turns out, I might want to bump that dream up a little higher on the list and place it above running the Iditarod and through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. While it’s not exactly imminent (don’t worry, I’m not going to quit my day job and leave tomorrow), some of those island nations are already preparing themselves for the impacts of climate change. As reported by the Washington Post, the entire Pacific nation of Kiribati is currently preparing contingency plans for what to do if sea level rise makes their island quite literally disappear below those perfect blue-green waters.
In case you’ve never heard of Kiribati before today, or looked for it on a map, this is where you can find it:
But a side-view topographic map should give us a bit more of an idea why they’re so worried about sea level rise.
Yup – Kiribati is an archipelago, and many of the atolls and small islands that the people live on there could be very quickly underwater with only very minor sea level rise. Two islands of Kiribati have already been covered due to the impacts of rising sea level, and their leaders are preparing and planning for what to do with their population of 103,000 if it gets worse.
It’s an interesting thing for us to think about, over here in North America, where we think that the impacts of climate change might just mean a few more hurricanes and some strange days where it decides to be 70 degrees in the middle of February. Now, truth be told, sea level fluctuation is a natural process. Across the course of geologic time (i.e., the entire history of the Earth), sea level has changed with glacial and interglacial periods – USGS has a great fact sheet summarizing what the impacts of this could be in the modern era. So, we always have to remember that the Earth we live on is a dynamic system: the continents are moving, mountains are being formed and eroded, tectonic plates are shifting, and our climate is not stable across millions of years.
The problem? Climate scientists generally agree that anthropogenic climate destabilization is accelerating this process, causing sea levels to rise more quickly than they naturally would have. We’re not going to talk about that here (as I always say, leave the science to the scientists). But, this interactive map gives you an idea how this would impact land availability around the world. Keep in mind that our population has arrived at the 7 billion mark, meaning that we now have decreasing space for an increasing number of people.
Which brings us to the critical question – one which is policy and not scientifically based: what do we do about this? How will we as a global community respond to the idea of ecological refugees: people who have been displaced from their homeland because of the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, natural disasters, and shifts in land, energy, and water resources. Where do these people go?
The island of Kiribati is already chewing on this very question, because they are concerned about the future of their younger generations. The proposed solution currently making headlines is to quite literally move the entire nation to….Fiji.
This in theory seems like an interesting solution, but it raises all kinds of questions. Would the people of Kiribati remain their own nation, or would they become a part of Fiji? How would they be moved? Who would pay for the cost of new land? How do you even place a value on land when it becomes a declining resource; a thing of scarcity in that particular region of the world? And what impacts would there be on these people as they adapt and build new lives?
The drama of this is probably fairly far down the road, but the questions are very real. As Kara has pointed out several times, when it comes to climate change adaptation, isn’t it better to think ahead? The world has a long history of political and social turmoil over natural resources. Plenty of wars have started because, on a most basic level, somebody had something that somebody else didn’t have and wanted (food, water, land, dare I say it, oil?) Plenty of other wars have started because of the social issues that arise when a minority population is displaced or takes up residence in a new county. While outright conflicts may be a good way off, that doesn’t mean the possibility isn’t there and that we shouldn’t be planning and asking these questions.
International organizations such as the World Bank have already started considering the impact of climate change on small island nations. Myriad problems are anticipated, including not only the disappearance of land, but profound impacts on groundwater sources, agricultural land, erosion patterns, flooding, changing tidal patterns, and public health impacts related to contamination of food and water sources and changing disease vectors.
What’s more than a little, depressing when you stop think about it, is the fact that the best solution some American leaders can come up with is….”Drill, Baby, Drill!” So to make you all feel better, I’ll leave you with a nice romantic picture of a beach in Kiribati. Maybe that’s something you can keep in mind next time you’re trying to decide whether you should walk to the grocery store or drive.