Global warming: Thousands flee Pacific islands on front line of climate change

Nations such as Tuvalu and Nauru represent the 'ground zero' of climate change

Tom Bawden
Environment Editor
@BawdenTom
Wednesday 02 December 2015 19:03
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Funafuti atoll, Tuvalu’s most populated; the country’s population has declined by 15 per cent
Funafuti atoll, Tuvalu’s most populated; the country’s population has declined by 15 per cent

A human exodus is under way across the Pacific Islands as global warming unleashes a barrage of cyclones, floods, storm surges and droughts, a report warns.

Thousands of people have already fled island nations such as Tuvalu and Nauru which, because of their poverty and proximity to the sea, represent the “ground zero” of climate change.

They are leaving as their crops, buildings and water supplies are damaged by extreme weather, according to the research which purports to offer the rest of the world a glimpse into the future of life under a warming planet.

The report finds that 15 per cent of the population of Tuvalu, an island nation mid-way between Hawaii and Australia, have left in the past decade – that’s about 1,500 people and leaves the population at about 10,800. One 10th of the population of Nauru, 25 miles south of the equator, have abandoned the island over the same period, leaving it with just over 10,000 inhabitants. Fiji, New Zealand and Australia are the most popular destinations.

The most comprehensive study so far into Pacific Island migration was released at the UN Climate Change Summit in Paris, where world leaders are attempting to agree on decisive action to contain global warming.

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Enele Sosene, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, said he hoped the research would help shine a spotlight on the problems faced by low-lying islands.

“Pacific islanders are facing the brunt of climate change impacts and are increasingly finding themselves with few options,” he said.

Alison Woodhead, of Oxfam, added: “People living in low-lying island nations have done almost nothing to cause climate change but are already facing rising sea levels and extreme weather, forcing some from their homes.”

Dr Koko Warner, of the United Nations University and the report’s author, said: “Climate change poses an existential threat for so many people in the Pacific, who are right in the front line and there’s not much more stress that they can take. Any treaty agreed in Paris over the next fortnight must recognise the significance of climate change migration. It must offer financial support and there must be tangible actions on the ground to help countries get prepared.”

The number of people forced to migrate – both to higher zones as well as to different countries – is expected to balloon in the coming years, as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, warned Dr Warner.

The problems already being experienced by the Pacific islands should act as a warning for the rest of the world, she said, pointing out that 70 per cent of the world’s major cities lie within 1km of the coast. This raises the prospect of mass migration later this century which would cause a colossal flow of refugees, she said. “We are closer than we think to the impact of climate change,” she said.

“This is not only a Pacific issue; it is a global issue. All countries will be affected by people on the move in relation to climate change, whether they are the country of origin, transit or destination,” she added.

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