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Rising Seas Force Evacuation of Island Country

Rising Seas Force Evacuation of Island Country

Lester R. Brown

The leaders of Tuvalu--a tiny island country in the Pacific Ocean midway
between Hawaii and Australia--have conceded defeat in their battle with the
rising sea, announcing that they will abandon their homeland. New Zealand
has agreed to accept all 11,000 citizens of Tuvalu, with migration expected
to start in 2002.

During the twentieth century, sea level rose by 20-30 centimeters (8-12
inches). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a rise of up
to 1 meter during this century. Sea level is rising because of the melting
of glaciers and the thermal expansion of the ocean as a result of climate
change. This in turn is due to rising atmospheric levels of CO2, largely
from burning fossil fuels.As sea level has risen, Tuvalu has experienced lowland flooding. Saltwater
intrusion is adversely affecting its drinking water and food production.
Coastal erosion is eating away at the nine islands that make up the country.
The higher temperatures that are raising sea level also lead to more
destructive storms. Higher surface water temperatures in the tropics and
subtropics mean more energy radiating into the atmosphere to drive storm
systems. Paani Laupepa, a Tuvaluan government official, reports an unusually
high level of tropical cyclones during the last decade. (Tropical cyclones
are called hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.)

Laupepa is bitterly critical of the United States for abandoning the Kyoto
Protocol, the international agreement to reduce carbon emissions. He told a
BBC reporter that "by refusing to ratify the Protocol, the U.S. has
effectively denied future generations of Tuvaluans their fundamental freedom
to live where our ancestors have lived for thousands of years."

For the leaders of island countries, this is not a new issue. In October
1987, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives, noted in an
impassioned address to the United Nations General Assembly that his country
was threatened by rising sea level. In his words, his country of 311,000 was
"an endangered nation." With most of its 1,196 tiny islands barely 2 meters
above sea level, the Maldives' survival would be in jeopardy with even a
1-meter rise in sea level in the event of a storm surge.

Tuvalu is the first country that people have been forced to evacuate because
of rising seas, but it almost certainly will not be the last. After
Australia balked and refused to accept any Tuvaluans, New Zealand agreed to
accept the entire population. But what about the 311,000 who may be forced
to leave the Maldives? Who will accept them? Or the millions of others
living in low-lying countries who may soon join the flow of climate
refugees? Will the United Nations be forced to develop a climate-immigrant
quota system, allocating the refugees among countries according to the size
of their population? Or will the allocation be according to the contribution
of individual countries to the climate change that caused the displacement?

Feeling threatened by the climate change over which they have little
control, the island countries have organized into an Alliance of Small
Island States, a group formed in 1990 specifically to lobby on behalf of
these countries vulnerable to climate change.

In addition to island nations, low-lying coastal countries are also
threatened by rising sea level. In 2000 the World Bank published a map
showing that a 1-meter rise in sea level would inundate half of Bangladesh's
riceland. (See map p 36 in Ch 2 of Eco-Economy, at
http://www.earth-policy.org/Books/Eco_contents.htm .) With a rise in sea
level of up to 1 meter forecast for this century, Bangladeshis would be
forced to migrate not by the thousands but by the millions. In a country
with 134 million people--already one of the most densely populated on the
earth--this would be a traumatic experience. Where will these climate
refugees go?

Rice-growing river floodplains in other Asian countries would also be
affected, including India, Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, and China. With a
1-meter rise in sea level, more than a third of Shanghai would be under
water. For China as a whole, 70 million people would be vulnerable to a
100-year storm surge.

The most easily measured effect of rising sea level is the inundation of
coastal areas. Donald F. Boesch, with the University of Maryland Center for
Environmental Sciences, estimates that for each millimeter rise in sea
level, the shoreline retreats an average of 1.5 meters. Thus if sea level
rises by 1 meter, coastline will retreat by 1,500 meters, or nearly a mile.

With such a rise, the United States would lose 36,000 square kilometers
(14,000 square miles) of land--with the middle Atlantic and Mississippi Gulf
states losing the most. Large portions of Lower Manhattan and the Capitol
Mall in Washington, D.C., would be flooded with seawater during a 50-year
storm surge.

A team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has calculated
Massachusetts's loss of land to the rising sea as warming progresses. Using
the rather modest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projections of sea
level rise by 2025, they calculated that Massachusetts would lose from 7,500
to 10,000 acres (3,035 to 4,047 hectares) of land. Based on just the lower
estimate and a nominal land value of $1 million per acre for ocean-front
property, this would amount to a loss of at least $7.5 billion of
particularly expensive property by then. Some of the 72 coastal communities
included in the study would lose far more land than others. Nantucket could
lose over 6 acres and Falmouth 3.8 acres a year.

Coastal real estate prices are likely to be one of the first economic
indicators to reflect the rise in sea level. Those with heavy investments in
beachfront properties will suffer most. A half-meter rise in sea level in
the United States could bring losses ranging from $20 billion to $150
billion. Beachfront properties, much like nuclear power plants, are becoming
uninsurable--as many homeowners in Florida have discovered.

Many developing countries already coping with population growth and intense
competition for living space and cropland now face the prospect of rising
sea level and substantial land losses. Some of those most directly affected
have contributed the least to the buildup in atmospheric CO2 that is causing
this problem.

While Americans are facing loss of valuable beachfront properties, low-lying
island peoples are facing something far more serious: the loss of their
nationhood. They feel terrorized by U.S. energy policy, viewing the United
States as a rogue nation, indifferent to their plight and unwilling to
cooperate with the international community to implement the Kyoto Protocol.

For the first time since civilization began, sea level has begun to rise at
a measurable rate. It has become an indicator to watch, a trend that could
force a human migration of almost unimaginable dimensions. It also raises
questions about responsibility to other nations and to future generations
that humanity has never before faced.