A Sinking Feeling For Pacific Atolls

The Hungry Tide is a new documentary produced by Tom Zubrycki that provides an in-depth look at the problems besetting the island nation of Kiribati. The message is simple; Kiribati, and other Pacific atolls, will inevitably sink. Environmental damage is real and happening right now. Scattered across the South Pacific and around the equator lay thousands of islands separated into atolls or lagoon- islands, many of which are sovereign states with their own customs. Industrial countries need to provide economic support for the current problems: deterioration of sea walls, flooding of homes, and contamination of potable water.

Micronesian, Polynesian, and other communities have inhabited these islands for 3,000 years, but, in the not-so-distant future, low-lying areas like the Pacific atolls will face the brunt of a cataclysmic rise in sea level and disappear beneath the waves. Some attribute this problem to increasing amounts of CO2 in Earth's atmosphere, which is rapidly heating the planet. Glaciers are melting 10 times faster than normal and greenhouse gases have reached levels not seen for millions of years. Sally Walker, author of We Are the Weather Makers, says that sea levels rise in two ways: as thermal expansion of the oceans and in the melting ice that returns to the ocean. Author of The Power of the Sea, Bruce Parker, says that by 2100, global sea level is expected to rise from two and a half to six feet.

Pacific atolls like Kiribati will be virtually uninhabitable by then because they are only a few feet above sea level and nearly 100% of the population live within 1km of the sea coast compared to the two-thirds of people globally who live within 50 miles of the sea coast. The land is so low that 10 km off shore, the island disappears into the horizon.

Impeding the effects of climate change is difficult. However, if we can predict accurately how the future climate will change globally, we can prepare for that future now. In 2008, Kiribati requested to the governments of Australia and New Zealand to allow entry to Kiribati citizens as climate refugees. Marcus Stephen, president of Nauru, says competitions over scarce resources will increase and conflicts will be driven by environmental catastrophes. Some islands are already exhibiting salt water contaminations and deterioration of coral reefs. Pollack says that climate displacement after only a 3 foot rise in sea level this century would be staggering: 11,000 Tuvaluans, 60,000 Marshall Islanders, 90,000 Kiribatis, 100,000 Venetians, and millions in the deltas of the Nile and Ganges. Pollack also says that refugee numbers would be equivalent to about seven Katrina-scale evacuations every year. This would create a political/economic/national security problem.

A possible solution, though, is producing renewable energy such as: wind, geothermal, solar, and wave. According to Pollack, production of renewable energy can have the same positive economic effects as the increased wartime production during World War II. Walker says that we need to cut CO2 emissions by 70% by 2050. Interestingly, if you replace a four-wheel-drive car with a hybrid fuel car, you can achieve that cut in a day rather than half a century. Global funds should also be created that can adequately strengthen sea defenses. Strengthening sea walls is said to cost as little as $50,000. Adaptation funds, like that given at Copenhagen worth $30 billion, can help Pacific atolls take preventive action. Also, training islanders in skills that are in short supply in other places will allow them to be welcomed as immigrants rather than climate refugees. 

The International community needs to act urgently. As the president of Nauru, Marcus Stephen, once wrote, "I forgive you if you have never heard of [my country] — but you will not forgive yourselves if you ignore our story.”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons