• Sam Holleran

What The World's Most Climate-Threatened Nations Teach Us About Sea-Rise Adaptation


In the vast Pacific Ocean, thousands of islands lie as they have for millennia. From Kiribati to the Marshall Islands to Fiji, eleven nations (along with a multitude of unrecognized indigenous tribes) share the Pacific Islands and have a combined population of 2.3 million people. Small island nations have been sounding the sea level rise alarm for years at the UN, as they will bear the brunt of the consequences of inaction against sea level rise.

Unfortunately, the Pacific islanders will merely be the first of millions of coastal inhabitants fleeing from rising tides. In 2007, the UN estimated that about 40% of the world population lives within 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) from coastlines. With increased urbanization, that number might have grown over the last decade and a half. These people are all at risk of becoming climate refugees, as millions each year will have to flee inland for survival. This flight will strain even the wealthiest countries’ asylum systems and increase both property rates and population density. As a result, the climate refugee crisis could become the largest movement of people in human history, triggering societal, economic, and political upheaval.

However, sea level rise is a global problem that the largest emitters need to take responsibility for through their support of adaptation and mitigation efforts. Unfortunately, Global North nations have shirked responsibility for exacerbating sea level rise, while many smaller nations, such as those in the Pacific Islands, face destruction due to their former group’s apathy. Yet, potential solutions often come from the frontline communities as they know their needs best, even if they might not always have the resources to realize their vision.

The Pacific Islanders are some of the best teachers for the Global North, as they pioneered sea level rise solutions and adaptation strategies that can be implemented across the globe. While many industrialized nations tout seawalls and levees as their saviors from the rising tides, these strategies harm local ecosystems. For example, Pacific Islanders have experimented with seaweed as fertilizer to plant vegetation along the coastlines that absorb some of the rising tides. They have also restored traditional wells that have not been used for decades and surrounded them with plants that help ward off the ocean. All of these efforts are part of concerted efforts within Pacific Islanders to promote climate smart agriculture, which spans from the encouragement of household gardens to new farming practices designed to help protect the local ecosystem. The Pacific Islanders provide a model for fighting sea level rise with limited resources, while protecting local wildlife as much as possible.

On the macro level, the UN has to re-evaluate its climate and sea level rise mitigation plan. Sea level rise and the resulting refugee crisis are global issues, and the UN needs to use its status as a global body to promote collaboration. The UN has to hold its biggest emitters accountable, or otherwise the rest of the world will pay the price for the larger countries’ shortsighted selfishness.

Relocation programs and mitigation measures go hand-in-hand, as the world needs to fight back against sea level rise while providing spaces for those who have already been affected. The world needs to come to terms with long-term planning for inevitable changes in our world due to climate change, and can take inspiration from the Pacific Islands.

Image via 350.org