Discovery Guides Areas


Environmental Refugees: How Many, How Bad?
(Released June 2006)

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations



The Fate of Small Islands: Perchance to Drown?


Flooding is only one of several ways in which climate change may spur environmental refugees; drought, forest fires, disease, and massive hurricanes are other possible side effects of global warming. For small island chains such as Tuvali, Vanuatu, and the Maldives, however, flooding is the current danger; these island nations may be early victims of rising sea levels. In 2005 a small Vanuatu community was moved inland to escape flooding. Tuvalu has made plans to abandon their nine island nation,34 although haven for the entire population of 11,000 has yet to be secured. New Zealand has already become a refuge for many Tuvaluans, and both New Zealand and Australia are debating how to handle future refugees.

swimmers and waders near flooded building
Flood strikes Tuvalu's capital, Funafuti

Sea level change has been widely documented. As long ago as 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency described a "thirty centimeter (one foot) rise in sea level that has taken place along much of the U.S. coast in the last century."35 According to a 2001 report of the International Council on Climate change, "Global mean sea level is projected to rise by 0.09 to 0.88 metres between 1990 and 2100."36 This spells trouble for both coastal regions and small island nations.

Erosion and disruption of fresh water are likely to affect those portions of small islands that remain above sea level. The Maldives are particularly threatened. According to a United Nations report, "with about three-quarters of the land area of Maldives less than a meter above mean sea level, the slightest rise in sea level will prove extremely threatening." With tide variation, environmental impacts are increased: "Many islands already suffer inundation and shoreline erosion" that lead "to freshwater shortages and disease outbreaks."37

Still, the timing, nature, and causes of environmental impacts are difficult to pinpoint. According to one report, "changes in sea level are related to a multitude of variables and no realistic trend can be detected from the data for many years to come."38 Indeed, skeptics about global climate change argue that small island nations use the possibility of rising sea levels as a tool to garner aid, and cite studies that "sea level around Tuvalu has been falling precipitously for the last half-century" before it began to rise.39 And the causes of any geographic- or time-specific rise in sea level may always be contested. More important than short-term trends, however, is the longer-term consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that global climate change is, indeed, happening.

If this is so, an environmental justice issue here is whether wealthy countries that generate large amounts of greenhouse gases should take in large numbers of refugees from climate change induced events. Explains a climate change guidebook, "while small islands are not responsible for the causes of climate change, they are likely to be the first to experience the worst effects of climate change, particularly through sea-level rise on low lying islands or through water shortages on porous and low lying islands."40 The Alliance of Small Island States "claims that metropolitan countries will need to pay damages to their countries and must begin meaningful reductions of greenhouse gases without further delay."41 Of course sorting out the long-term causes of such events, who is responsible, and how they should compensate, is far easier said than done. Most developed nations have thus far foregone responsibility for island nation refugees.

Go To Wither the Refugees? Solutions?

© Copyright 2006, All Rights Reserved, CSA

List of Visuals