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Small island countries in the world’s oceans are threatened with extinction from sea level rise

Dear Editor,

Throughout the world’s vast oceans, small island countries from Jamaica in the Caribbean to Fiji in the South Pacific face an existential threat from sea level rise caused by the climate crisis.

These 41 small island developing states (SIDS) including Grenada, Jamaica and Saint Lucia in the Caribbean and the Solomon Islands and Fiji in the Pacific, are facing no less than complete extinction from rising oceans within 40 to 80 years. They are the vulnerable small island countries in the world that are on the front line of the climate crisis.

According to the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Change Assessment, released in November of 2018 and the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report of October of 2018, the world’s oceans rose eight inches since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the biggest increase occurring just since the 1990s.

Climate scientists predict that the seas will continue to rise two to eight feet by 2100 and possibly much higher. They estimate that after 2100 the seas could continue to rise several more feet each decade if we continue “business as usual” and there are no immediate and drastic reductions of greenhouse gases.

As the surrounding sea begins to over wash and flood low lying coastal zones of these islands, where most populations live, they will flee, first inland to higher ground and eventually be forced to emigrate en masse to other countries.

Will they be welcomed into the wealthy, industrialized countries that are responsible for sea level rise or will the fleeing populations of millions be turned away and live precariously as “climate refugees?” Ghastly images of homeless “boat people” come into view.

The 41 small island countries have a combined population of only 50 million and collectively contribute less than one percent of global greenhouse gases. As the least responsible for the climate crisis they are the most at risk.

The journal, science, reported that the oceans are warming 40 percent faster than the UN panel on climate change predicted five years ago. The hottest ocean temperature on record was 2017. That record was quickly broken in 2018.

Rising sea levels will first flood an island nation’s coastal zone where most of the population lives, destroying crops, damaging infrastructure such as ports, roads, airports, hospitals, power generating plants and government facilities. Food and fresh water supplies, housing and job security will be at risk.

A study published in the journal, science advances, in April 2018, found that if sea levels continue to rise at present rates, most low atoll island nations will become uninhabitable by 2060 due to saltwater intrusion from wave-driven over wash that compromises freshwater aquifers and destroys coastal infrastructure.

Should these island nations seek to hold the industrialized countries liable to pay the costs of economic disruption and population resettlement through the creation of new international treaties?

Most of these island countries, with a few notable exceptions such as Kiribati, in Micronesia in the Central Pacific and a few countries in the Caribbean, have no comprehensive programs for adaption to climate change or protecting vulnerable coastal populations. They have not developed any plans or set aside funds for an orderly resettlement of populations to higher ground or mass emigration from their island homes.

Nine U.S. cities and counties from New York to California have filed lawsuits against large oil companies to pay the cost of environmental damage. Should small island developing states consider similar legal remedies?

The Paris Agreement of 2015 acknowledged the relationship between human rights and the climate crisis including the right to life, food, water, health, housing, development and self-determination.

In 1800 before the Industrial Revolution, there were 280 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. It has increased to 415 parts per million today from the burning of fossil fuels.

Global carbon emissions are not decreasing. They are increasing worldwide at the rate of 2.5 percent per year. Drastic reductions in carbon emissions must be accomplished within 13 years to keep the Earth’s atmosphere from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, the tipping point beyond which the heating of the globe will become irreversible.

For thousands of years, people have inhabited these beautiful small island countries. They gaze out on the vast ocean that surrounds them, nurtured them and defined their unique way of life. Now they see the ocean as a disquieting force influenced by powers beyond their control.

– Brent L. Probinsky

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