As rising sea levels threaten to drown Pacific island nations, regional leaders are scrambling to draw up survival plans that contend with a painful reality: how to prepare for a future where countries become increasingly uninhabitable and their people must leave.
Their answer is now coming into sharper focus as some of the world’s most vulnerable nations, including the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, unveil national strategies and policies for how they plan to confront a challenge that could endanger their very existence. It also comes as a major COP28 draft deal, released on Monday after days of grueling negotiations, omitted again critical language on phasing out fossil fuels, sparking fierce pushback from Pacific island nations and underscoring just how dire their path forward may be.
“The scale of the challenges [island nations are] facing is hard to even imagine,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist. “They are facing the loss of huge, proportionally huge, areas of land and in some cases the entire country.”
For nearly a century and a half, the Earth has warmed as civilizations have burned fossil fuels, overhauled agricultural systems, and built the vast network of roads, shipping lines, and railways that underpin global transportation today. Some 90 percent of that heat has been absorbed by the world’s oceans, driving thermal expansion of ocean waters and the sea level rise that is now encroaching on precious seaside real estate.
By the end of the 21st century, low-lying island nations such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati could be underwater, according to the U.N.-backed Global Centre for Climate Mobility, although rising sea levels will likely render them uninhabitable even earlier. As the planet warms, sea levels are also rising faster in the Pacific compared with the global average, according to the U.N. meteorological agency, a worrying trend that has already consumed smaller islands, forced communities to relocate, and damaged crops and agricultural production across the region.
Facing this future, island nations have fiercely pushed for more robust commitments to slash emissions and financial support for losses already sustained under the climate crisis. Those debates are currently unfolding at COP28 and in international courts, as Pacific leaders seek the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea’s advisory ruling on nations’ legal climate obligations—a case that could shape what damages can look like.
“The Republic of the Marshall Islands did not come here to sign our death warrant,” John Silk, the Marshall Islands’ minister of natural resources and commerce, declared on Monday. “We came to fight for [limiting warming to] 1.5 [degrees Celsius] and for the only way to achieve that: a fossil fuel phase out.”
Still, years of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA projections outline how the water is creeping up and will continue to do so. If some of the most vulnerable islands become uninhabitable in the coming decades, as they are expected to, the question is what happens to the people.
That’s why the islanders in question were especially vociferous at the latest climate confab.
The Pacific islands are “being as vocal as they can be to advocate for emissions mitigation as rapidly and dramatically as possible,” said Kayly Ober, a senior program officer for the climate, environment, and conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The second line of attack is to argue that because they are especially vulnerable, there should be a degree of climate finance for them related to adaptation and related to loss and damage specifically.”
There comes a time when more drastic measures are necessary. Already, Kiribati has sought to physically elevate its land with vast quantities of sand and rocks; encroaching waters in Fiji have forced villagers to abandon their homes. Tuvalu, worried that it too will soon be underwater, wants to create a digital clone of the country.
In one of the most comprehensive strategies released yet, the Marshall Islands unveiled an adaptation plan last week that details, in multiple phases, how authorities plan to tackle the threat of rising sea levels, Grist first reported. In the first phase, the government will take all possible steps to safeguard the country’s most vulnerable islands until 2040 or 2050, when it must reassess the situation, reconcentrate its protection efforts, and “consolidate social services.” By 2070, the government must determine which territories it wishes to protect in the long run—which could be just four stretches of land, a tiny fraction of the 24 currently populated areas—and focus on constructing infrastructure there for relocated communities.
The Marshall Islands’ adaptation plan is “the most detailed plan that I’ve seen from any of these small island countries that talks about progressive decision-making as the decades go by,” said Michael Gerrard, the founder and faculty director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “Eventually they might have to leave entirely, but sort of in the short to medium term, these countries want to prepare physically.”
Even without such a sweeping strategy in place, other countries are making similar preparations for migration. Tuvalu, for instance, recently signed a pact with Australia in which Canberra announced security guarantees for the island and pledged to accept 280 migrants from Tuvalu per year over climate-related concerns. (Australia, in exchange, now has the power to weigh in on and shape any of Tuvalu’s future security arrangements with other powers.) Last week, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said she would be “open to consider any specific request” over climate resettlement from Pacific island nations.
Migration is just one part of the picture, too. As Pacific island countries brace for an uncertain future, there remains a whole raft of unanswered questions about what rising sea levels mean for the fate of their economies, international legal rights, and their cultural legacies.
“One issue is, if a country is underwater, is it still a state?” Gerrard said. “Is it still a member of the United Nations? Does it still have an exclusive economic zone? What is the citizenship of its displaced people?”