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impacts of climate change

A series of articles by Bund/Friends of the Earth Germany - 1st published in Frankfurter Rundschau

 

Impacts of Climate Change - Part 1

BUND/Friends of the Earth Germany


The Pacific – Flight from Paradise

Leo Falcam, the former president of Micronesia, made the issue very clear when he said: "Climate change is the biggest security threat we face". He was speaking in the year 2000 as a representative of around seven million people who live in the small island states in the Pacific Ocean. Falcam wondered how much longer human life could be sustained on Tonga, Fiji or Samoa.

 

The inhabitants of the Pacific Islands are not responsible for global warming – they account for only 0.06 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But they are the first victims because most of the islands are small, flat and extremely vulnerable.

 

Experts assume that sea levels will rise in the next few decades. The only question is whether they will rise by 30 centimetres, one metre or perhaps even several metres. Storm tides already flood the islands more frequently these days and whole stretches of coastline are being eaten up by the sea. Some small atolls in Fiji have already lost 30 metres. At the same time, the salt water is seeping into the ground, destroying fertile land and contaminating the groundwater. Climate change is also having an increasing effect on rainfall. In the past years the Marshall Islands, Fiji and Micronesia have experienced the most severe droughts to date. Elsewhere, heavy rainfall has destroyed the harvest.


Droughts Here, Floods There

These weather extremes are in turn accelerating the spread of illnesses like malaria as well as skin and lung infections. A rise in the sea temperature will eventually also threaten the coral reefs that surround the islands. A rise of one degree in the water temperature has already led to the destruction of some coral, destroying in turn many fish habitats. Consequently, the island inhabitants lose an important food source as well as a tourist attraction.

 

With floods, illness and a shortage of food, it is no wonder that island inhabitants can only see one solution: leave their homes and emigrate. The small island state of Tuvalu , which measures 400 metres at its widest, and whose highest point above sea level is just three metres, has already started the process of emigration. In the year 2000 the inhabitants, numbering more than 11,000, had already realised that their island would be uninhabitable in the long-term and they applied for asylum in Australia . But to no avail. Australia – the one large industrial country who, along with the USA , did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change – refused to grant asylum. The Australian government did not recognise environmental refugees in international law as proper refugees because they were not being persecuted by a State. In contrast,  Australia 's neighbour, New Zealand , was willing to accept the Tuvaluese. In cooperation with the governments of Tuvalu and other island states, the New Zealand government developed an evacuation plan for the Pacific area. Under this plan, 75 people will emigrate annually from Tuvalu and Kiribati to New Zealand as well as 250 people each from Fiji and Tonga.

 

Things will happen at an even faster rate on the island of Carteret , which belongs to Papua New Guinea .  In two year's time, the inhabitants  - who amount to just under 1,000 - will have resettled in nearby Bougainville . They have to abandon their six small islands and leave them to the sea. A new Atlantis – engulfed by environmental politics.

The Pacific Islands are the first victims. But scientists reckon that in the next few decades hundreds of millions of people worldwide will become environmental refugees, fleeing from coastal regions where periods of drought or floods have made their countries uninhabitable. When Leo Falkam spoke of a “security threat” to the Pacific island states, he was only anticipating what will soon become a reality for other states.

 

First published in Frankfurter Rundschau (Germany), translation: Sharon O'Brian

 

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