No Place to Run: Pacific Islanders 'Trapped' in Path of Rising Seas

High tide envelops Eita, South Tarawa in Kiribati. (Photo: Remi Chauvin/The Guardian)

No Place to Run: Pacific Islanders 'Trapped' in Path of Rising Seas

New report finds many are unable to afford the costs of fleeing climate destruction

The rising seas pose an existential threat to the Pacific Islands, and with them, the irreplaceable cultures and societies they house.

Now, a new report presented Wednesday by the United Nations University and European Union reveals that--among those in Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru willing to consider migration if climate change makes their homes unlivable--the vast majority do not possess the money required to relocate.

In other words, many are trapped in the direct path of climate destruction.

The unprecedented study was presented at the ongoing United Nations COP21 climate talks in Paris and is based on interviews with 6,852 individuals from 852 households in the three island countries.

"More than 70 per cent of households in Kiribati and Tuvalu and 35 per cent of households in Nauru reported family members would migrate if climate stressors, such as droughts, sea-level rise or floods worsened," a report summary explains. "However, only about a quarter of households have the financial means to support migration, leaving many households 'trapped' in worsening environmental conditions."

In addition, researchers found that the past decade has seen a burst of migration, including 10 percent of Nauru's population and 15 percent of Tuvalu. However, assuming a "medium climate change scenario," this displacement is poised to jump by 2055 to 35 percent of Kiribati's population and a stunning 100 percent of Tuvalu residents, the report concludes.

"The results from this unprecedented survey show us empirically what we already know," said Enele Sosene Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, in a statement accompanying the report. "Pacific islanders are facing the brunt of climate change impacts and are increasingly finding themselves with few options."

The findings underscore a grim reality that front-lines communities across the world have long pointed out. In addition to the pressing need to aggressively halt climate change, the wealthy nations and people that are disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions owe a debt to help those most impacted deal with the life-threatening consequences--from storms to crop failure to conflict.

However, the Green Climate Fund established by the UN in 2010, in part to assist countries on the front-lines in adapting to climate catastrophe, remains under-funded by richer nations, including the United States. What's more, in September New Zealand rejected an asylum application from Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who sought refugee status on the grounds that his home is sinking.

Pacific Islanders have been at the forefront of efforts to press the world into more aggressive action. Last October, "climate warriors" from 12 Pacific Island countries paddled traditional canoes into the sea where they blockaded the massive coal port at Newcastle, Australia. And this September, leaders of the smaller Pacific Island nations most vulnerable to rising oceans demanded a "global moratorium on all new coal mines."

Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner made waves last September when she opened the UN climate summit in New York with a poem for her daughter, captured in the following video:

Meanwhile, in the streets of Paris and around the world, people from around the world are holding rallies, summits, and ceremonies to demand aggressive international action, rooted in principles of global justice.

"The voices of Indigenous peoples, youth, women and frontline communities need to provide guidance in these negotiations, now more than ever," the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance said last month ahead of the talks. "Climate justice seeks to address much more than greenhouse gas emissions, but the root systemic causes of climate change itself."

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