No change from climate change: island vulnerability

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

by Ilan Kelman

Climate change is often touted as humanity’s biggest development challenge. Low-lying, tropical islands are particularly highlighted as potentially experiencing future devastation. How accurate is this rhetoric?

No doubt exists that many islanders are suffering under climate change. Residents of the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea have been forced to move as sea-level rise encroaches on their villages.

Many other island locations are also experiencing climate change impacts, but in tandem with other development challenges which have existed for decades. Also in the Pacific, Kiribati is severely threatened by sea-level rise. But the people there have long been trying to solve other devastating problems including urban planning, land use, and water resources.

Focusing on climate change problems has the unfortunate consequence of distracting from other development challenges. In particular, the physical hazard of climate change to islands and islanders is often emphasised, tending to promote technocratic responses for only climate change. Integrated approaches focusing on island peoples, communities, and livelihoods are frequently sidelined.

The fundamental question is why inequality and power relations have left many island communities with few options for responding to climate change. That is the same as the long-standing questions about why inequality and power relations have left many island communities unable to tackle the root causes of their multiple vulnerabilities.

The difficulty is not so much addressing the hazard of climate change per se. Instead, it is understanding why islanders often continue to be denied the resources and options to address climate change themselves–just as with the other development challenges that have pervaded for decades.

In that regard, climate change brings little to the islands that is new.

The author: Dr. Ilan Kelman is Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO).

books_icon Kelman I 2013 No change from climate change: vulnerability and small island developing states The Geographical Journal DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12019

60-world2Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2013 Mangroves in the Marshall Islands to protect local community (Press release) Scoop 24 January

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