Roger-Mark De Souza, President of Sister Cities International

What does climate change mean for islands?

Climate change is a complex and time-sensitive challenge for all nations. For small-island developing states (SIDS), the implications are particularly dire. Their geography makes them inherently susceptible to natural Disasters and other geological forces, including rising sea levels, intensifying storms, and degrading ecosystems.

Moreover, climate-induced shocks have fastspreading impacts across closely coupled terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems. These physical factors, when combined with population growth, concentrated development (particularly on the coasts), and economic dependency on natural resources, make small-island communities immensely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

This heightened exposure to environmental risk has prompted SIDS to advocate for ambitious climate goals and adaptation innovations. Leaders from the Caribbean and Pacific islands are pressuring the international community to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Most islanders also have a long track record of adapting to extreme weather. In building future resilience, the ability of island populations to overcome environmental adversities – along with their determination to resist a worsening trajectory – can be a vital source of inspiration for global climate action.

Yet, island nations are still a long way from securing their social, economic, and physical infrastructures against the intensifying impacts of climate change. The current focus on increasing resilience offers many opportunities, but capitalising on them will require support from both the international and local communities, as well as tightly coordinated efforts across a broad range of stakeholders.
Coastal regions like this in Bangladesh are often threatened by erosion and rising sea levels. (Copyright: Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson)
Preparing to move: Migration as an adaptation strategy
While natural disasters can temporarily displace coastal residents, individuals facing existential climate threats might seek more permanent refuge in relatively safer countries or communities. In both situations, relocation is used as coping mechanism. Can migration be a positive adaptation strategy?
The relationship between migration and climate change is not clear-cut. The Marshall Islands Climate and Migration Project, for example, has found that climate change is not the primary driver of migration from the islands; rather, concerns about livelihoods, economic opportunity, food security, and overall well-being largely influenced residents’ decisions to leave for the United States – and most express a desire to return to the islands in the future. Moreover, many migrants send remittances to their family members in islands, which provide funds that may be used to make vulnerable coastal communities more resilient. Examining the socio-economic links between migration and climate change can illuminate ways we can use deliberate planning to strengthen the adaptive aspects of migration.
More specifically, mobility policies that encourage flexible employment regulations and community engagement in receiving countries can help displaced people and migrants choose positive relocation options. Building trust among adjacent coastal communities and between neighbouring countries is vital to ensure that policies in both source and destination areas are inclusive and support positive adaptation. Despite the inherent vulnerabilities of assimilating to a new way of life, preemptively preparing for relocation – instead of risking forced displacement – can empower islanders to choose their own destiny and set their own course on a more resilient path.

Roger-Mark De Souza is an expert in resilience research from Trinidad and Tobago. (Copyright: Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson)
The politics of risk: Community-driven resilience vs. corruption
The political will and financial support for addressing climate risks is growing within many island communities. However, key challenges include the lack of transparency and inclusivity throughout the multiple stages of sustainable development. As international funding to SIDS increases as a result of COP 21 commitments, so do the risks of corruption. Islands need political frameworks that reify rule of law and strengthen accountability among public and private actors to ensure that funds are being appropriately allocated to projects that enhance resilience, rather than support the interests of those in power.
Community-driven resilience initiatives are one way of preventing power imbalances from directing the flow of financial resources toward ineffective solutions or corrupt actors. Humanitarian and development efforts that encourage community members to shape their own resilience agenda can increase citizens’ access to the decision-making process. Community-led projects can also help identify where losses and damages are likely to occur, address multi-dimensional sources of vulnerability, mitigate context-specific climate risks, and stimulate innovative strategies that offer co-benefits for both, people and the environment.
26 April 2018


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