Far away from everything, in the middle of the ocean, a row of sandbags fights against the future: It’s a matter of survival on the tiny island nation of Kiribati, its gambit aimed at staving off the rising Pacific. Over on Tuvalu, another small island country, the government is considering filling in the lagoon in the center of an atoll to boost soil levels. And around the world, in 20 particularly waterlogged spots, tiny governments and big investors alike are pulling out the stops — and the bucks — in hopes of avoiding submersion.
But isn’t this all wasted effort? Crumbling seawalls, swept away sandbags and roads that bubble up with saltwater would suggest — yes. Climate change shows no sign of reversing and the ocean shows no sign of subsiding. If we’re brutally honest, aren’t the efforts to save these islands in vain?
Shouldn’t we let them sink?
Create a legal status for environmental refugees, and place responsibility for sheltering them on the rich, polluting states.
“You can get the impression that the best solution would be to start the flight process now rather than the fight process,” concedes Dr. Scott Leckie, founder of Displacement Solutions, which focuses on those displaced by climate change in more than 20 countries. He doesn’t quite buy it, but some do. Like James Russell, a University of Auckland ecologist who led a study on invasive species that, daringly, considers island biology not just over the next 10 years but the next 100. When you use that timeline, Russell tells OZY, saving species on sinking islands could be a “low-value” proposition, and “we might want to rejig the balance of where we invest.”
It’s not as callous as it might sound. Were we to write off the small island states, the international community would have to come to terms, instead, with the millions of people who live there. We might at last create a legal status for environmental refugees, and apportion responsibility for sheltering them among the rich, polluting states that made their homes precarious in the first place. Indeed, in Panama, the Kuna (or Guna) people plan to join their mainland cousins in the near future. This summer, the Kiribati government purchased land in Fiji; though it has stated that the land is for agriculture only, many observers believe it is the future settlement once the island sinks.
Of course, finding high ground may not be the perfect solution. Leckie says that after relocation, one can expect that the standard of living may dramatically decline unless the process is community-led. “The likely scenario, in Fiji, for example, is not a vibrant, well-functioning, prosperous settlement, but an impoverished, unstable place that could even provide foundations for ethnic conflicts that aren’t present now.”
But if that’s the fear, maybe that’s just another reason to invest those international development dollars in settlements rather than sandbags.
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This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.