Island life

The small Pacific Island states are doing their best to keep the developed world aware of what is happening to them and other vulnerable states under the impacts of climate change. Kiribati this week hosted the second session of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a forum initiated by the Republic of the Maldives in 2009 to bring together countries that were particularly susceptible to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Nineteen nations, both small island states and larger economies, attended this week’s Tarawa Conference and after what sounded like tough negotiation agreed on the Ambo Declaration, named after the village in Kiribati where parliament sits. It’s not a legally binding agreement, but is intended for presentation at the upcoming Cancun conference.


The text of the Declaration has not at the time of writing been published. It will appear on the climate change website of the Office of the President of Kiribati but in the meantime the news report provided there summarises it:

“The declaration covers the urgency of addressing the immediate effects of climate change, the need for fast funding to combat these concerns in vulnerable nations, and agrees upon an aim to make concrete decisions at the meeting in Mexico kicking off late this month.”

It doesn’t sound startling. Kiribati President, Anote Tong, said the meeting tried to focus on where delegates would find agreement “rather than fight and debate over our different positions”. The Maldives Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Naseem, facilitated the meeting and spoke of the need to negotiate when a clause gives even marginal reference to a sensitive issue.  He instanced the sensitivity of such questions as how emissions are limited and how they are monitored without infringing a country’s sovereignty.

One has to feel for the predicament of the vulnerable states. What they most need, and must strongly call for, is a legally binding international agreement which will drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But they also need help from the countries most responsible for emissions to enable them to cope with the changes they have begun to experience and are set to get worse.

This double bind is reflected in the somewhat convoluted comments of President Tong to reporters at the conference:

Tong told reporters he was still pushing for a legally binding agreement treaty to promote long-term action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – a bid that was snubbed at last year’s summit in Mexico in favour of the Copenhagen Accord.

However, he knows this is a big call and would settle on short-term solutions and dedicated funding boosts.

“It’s unrealistic to think that we can resolve these issues in a couple of sessions; it’s going to take the next few decades,” Tong said.

“There are certain issues which must not take that long.

“The longer we wait the more costly it’s going to be.”

However there was more to the conference than the Declaration. The President said in a Radio Australia interview before the conference opened:

“I think this will be the first opportunity for the large countries to actually see first hand what it is we have to contend with. To actually experience the high tides and the very marginal rise in elevation and land when the tide is coming in at the very highest level. And so this is an experience which not many people truly understand, and hopefully this will be an opportunity for, particularly the countries which are making the largest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions to truly appreciate what it is we are talking about.”

Asked by the interviewer to enlarge on the differences which he was hoping the conference might find a way round he replied:

“Well we continue to argue, vulnerable countries, about our survival. The developing countries, the large developed countries continue to argue about economic growth, the poverty and what have you. I think we must believe that there are common grounds, we must believe that there is a way forward.”

The interviewer noted that in Kiribati people are having to move further and further inland because of the inundation of water on their produce gardens. She asked how much further inland they can keep going before there’s nowhere else for them to go. Tong replied:

“Well that’s precisely the point, there is no inland for us. But I think this is also something that we want to demonstrate, that in some parts of the island you throw a stone and you actually hit the other side of the island. So there is no inland. And these are the issues and these are things that we want people to be able to appreciate.”

The interviewer asked whether this means there’s now is a need for more talk about environmental refugees, suggesting that what he’s saying is that the people on Kiribati will have to move eventually.

“Well I always make the point that I reject the notion of environmental refugees. I think what we want to be able to be prepared for is all possible eventualities, one of which may be the need to relocate our people. And in order to relocate we must begin to address these issues now, and part of the process of addressing them is referring for that process. And so it requires a very well planned and a long-term process. If we know it’s going to happen, we have the time to plan it, then there is no reason why we should not begin planning it now.”

That’s the ultimate in adaptation. But if we won’t listen to the call for no more than a 1.5 degree global temperature rise or 350 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere justice will demand that we at least enable such relocation as proves necessary.

[Divine Comedy]

57 thoughts on “Island life”

  1. Bryan, watching that video was more than a little sad. Islands like Kiribati are history, given the accelerated melt in Greenland/Antarctica, and acceleration in sea level rise.

    Sea level trend for Kiribati:

    Sea Level & Climate: Their Present State Kiribati December 2009

    “A SEAFRAME gauge was installed in Betio, Tarawa, Kiribati, in December 1992. It records sea level, air and water temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind speed and direction. It is one of an array designed to monitor changes in sea level and climate in the Pacific.”

    ” The sea level trend to date is +4.3 mm/year but the magnitude of the trend continues to vary widely from month to month as the data set grows. Accounting for the precise levelling results and inverted barometric pressure effect, the trend is +3.9 mm/year.”

    1. So, if Kiribati sea levels continue to rise at the rate of 3.9cm/decade, it will take 250 years to rise by 2 metres – the minimum level expected to cause inundation. Why are they moving inland already?

      1. Far from losing their country, natural storm events can add to coral atolls. Cyclone Bebe in October 1972 “created a rubble rampart 4 m high and 18 km long along the eastern side of the atoll.” Over time such banks migrate shoreward and “This rampart is becoming incorporated into the fabric of Funafuti”
        Nunn, P.D. (1994). Oceanic Islands. Blackwell. Oxford. p 167

        1. Err right Steve, haven’t you heard, corals are dying around the world?. They don’t like warm water, the symbiotic algae can’t provide carbohydrates because the too warm water blocks photosynthesis. The algae get booted out by the coral polyps, which then die from lack of food.

          Maybe that’s why they’re not keeping pace?, or maybe it’s vastly more complex than you like to pretend?.

            1. Hey Gareth, this little round of whack-a-mole has me thinking. Are you able to get someone from say Tuvalu, Kiribati etc, on the Climate Show every now and then?.

              Be interesting to hear their eye-witness accounts, and would help to publicize their plight. No bugger in the NZ mainstream media seems to care.

            2. So sea level rise is just magic, and nothing to do with ice sheet melt and thermal expansion?.

              Or is it more likely they still haven’t sorted out the druck pressure sensor fault, which gives a cooling bias?.

      2. Australis. I don’t think you are grasping how close this is. At one meter sea level rise we loose Holland, London most of Florida and Louisiana and about 200 million people are displaced. The IPCC report predicted 750mm but without any allowance for Greenland and Antarctica’s glaciers melting. Try looking at a world flooding map.

        1. Whoah, not so fast Bob. The Dutch have been fighting the sea before and we’re not so easy deterred by a mere meter of water. You know, the storm surge of ’53 cost the lives of only 1800 people then and it was 4.5 meters above normal. We have 16 million now in that low lying delta 😉

          Ofcourse it will cost us many billions before 2050 just to keep our feet dry and it will continue to need hefty investments because the level ain’t gonna stop at 1m, but everything is better then trying to prevent this expensive joke in the first place right? On the contrary, we’ll earn many more billions exporting our knowledge and products keeping the Londoners and other expensive coastal cities under threat dry.

          Global warming just is an opportunity for us…

          1. I sailed in Holland and its very beautiful but the omens are not good. If you look at the flood maps set to one meter a huge amount of Holland and Belgium disappear and in England there is flood water in as far as Leeds.
            A lot of Dutch in NZ. Get here before the rush starts.

  2. However, sea-level rise may not necessarily mean Kiribati will be inundated. Paul Kench at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Arthur Webb at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji released a study in 2010 on the dynamic response of reef islands to sea level rise in the central Pacific. Kiribati was mentioned in the study, and Webb and Kench found that the three major urbanised islands in Kiribati – Betio, Bairiki and Nanikai – increased by 30 per cent (36 hectares), 16.3 per cent (5.8 hectares) and 12.5 per cent (0.8 hectares), respectively

    1. From New Scientist:

      Webb and Kench warn that while the islands are coping for now, any acceleration in the rate of sea-level rise could overtake the sediment build up. Calculating how fast sea levels will rise over the coming decades is uncertain science, and no one knows how fast the islands can grow.


          From the horse’s mouth:

          Does this information change the vulnerability of the atolls to sea-level rise?
          This study did not measure vertical growth of the island surface nor does it suggest there is any change in the height of the islands. Since land height has not changed the vulnerability of the greater part of the land area of each island to submergence due to sealevel rise is also unchanged and these low-lying atolls remain immediately and extremely vulnerable to inundation or sea water flooding.

    2. John, if that was the island featured recently on tv (and I think it was), then the increase in “land” was sand – no good for growing anything on and subject to shifting over short time periods.

      1. NEWSFLASH: atolls are all loose sand and coral rubble. Not so much geographical features as processes, and not the sort of places you would expect to establish long-term societies anyway. The only reason that they have hospitals, rapidly increasing populations and seats in the UN is because of the FF-based energy economy.

        1. How long is a long-term society, Steve? From Wikipedia – “The area now called Kiribati has been inhabited by Micronesians speaking the same Oceanic language since sometime between 3000 BC and AD 1300” That’s longer than NZ has been inhabited.

        2. NEWSFLASH: Steve’s as well informed as usual –


          atolls are all loose sand and coral rubble


          Ephemeral atoll islands named cays can be distinguished from those which are more permanent named motu (Nunn 1994). Motu are atoll islands which owe their durability to the formation of various rock armors such as beachrock, conglomerate platforms (pakokota), or phosphate rock. Pakokota occur widely in the Tuamotus. Even more enduring among such islands are those which have experienced a degree of emergence (uplift and/or sea level fall) and thus have a core of fossil reef within the sediment pile. Many of the larger atoll islands, such as several in Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may have such emerged-reef cores.

          Encyclopaedia of Coastal Science Maurice L Schwartz 2005 p 756

          And are we really going to let Steve go without mentioning this well-informed classic (referring here to the Maldives)?

          In some ways it’s a pity that catastrophic sea-level rise remains a figment of James Hansen’s fevered imagination, as the submerging of this theocratic hole would almost be a positive outcome.

          I think not! Steve meet Lank; Lank, meet Steve – two peas in a pod!

            1. This is true, but gives little comfort. You see, corals only grow in sea water; they cannot grow above the sea surface, and stop growing when they reach it. Same, more or less, with deposition of sand and rubble: this can only happen up to places regularly reached by high water.

              Human beings on the other hand feel best at home at some distance above the sea surface…

              The see why this is important, one must know that in the indo-pacific region, sea level reached a high stand in the mid-Holocene some 6000 years ago, and has been coming down by several feet since. Those islands that stick above sea level by such amounts — and thus are suitable for human habitation — were formed back then; today they are dead (except at their shorelines) and don’t grow vertically anymore. That won’t change until the resumed sea level rise overtakes the old high stand again. Too late for humans by then.

  3. What’s telling, I think, is the pretty much complete absence of coverage of this event in the NZ media. At least, I’ve seen nothing. My thanks to Bryan for drawing it to our attention.

      1. The Radio NZ website post may as well be about paint drying. All we can take from it is that Stephanie Lee had a nice holiday and is looking forward to going to Mexico!!
        When are we going to get reports with a bit of substance from this outfit?

    1. Coral atolls are dynamic landforms that constantly shift and adjust with coral growth, wave and current action. Any textbook on coral atoll geology will outline how atolls can build up to match even rapidly rising sea levels. There is even a scientific term for them: keep-up islands. For example:
      “reef accretion reached 10.0 mm/year at Enewetak between 7000 and 6500 BP”
      (Adey, 1978) cited in Nunn, P.D. (1994). Oceanic Islands. Blackwell. Oxford. p 281
      “Alacran Reef off Yucatan is an example, with a growth rate of 12 metres/1000 years [ie. 12 mm/year] relative to sea level rise of 3 to 4 metres/1000 years”
      Guilcher, A. (1988). Coral Reek Geomorphology. Wiley. Chichester. p 64

      1. You are quite correct Steve. Unfortunately nobody has thought to tell these small island nations that sand and coral mining, building roads and concrete buildings, airports and houses don’t help at all. Compaction, vibration from cars, trucks and aircaft tend to lower relief on porous unstable coral islands and erosion caused by sand mining isn’t much good for land degradation either.
        I hate to be cynical but I wonder why there aren’t many more conferences and seminars to help small island people to manage these issues which together account for far more environmental damage than rising sea levels.
        Perhaps they just wouldn’t attract the ‘green’ dollar. It’s much easier to blame others than to take responsibility for the damage inflicted by their own actions.

      2. Err right Steve, haven’t you heard, corals are dying around the world?. They don’t like warm water, the symbiotic algae can’t provide carbohydrates because the too warm water blocks photosynthesis. The algae get booted out by the coral polyps, which then die from lack of food.

        Maybe that’s why they’re not keeping pace?, or maybe it’s vastly more complex than you like to pretend?

          1. and many recent studies suggest that numerous coral reefs are flourishing.

            NOAA: Coral Bleaching Likely in Caribbean This Year – September 22, 2010

            Caribbean Coral Die-Off Could Be Worst Ever – Oct 14 2010

            I’ve never seen bleaching like [it] in Panama,” said Nancy Knowlton, a coral biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama who has been studying the local flora for 25 years. She and colleague Hector Guzman have seen massive reefs die in recent weeks in the enclosed lagoon of Bocas del Toro in Panama after becoming coated with giant sheets of slime, the remains of dead microorganisms. “This is NOT a normal condition on reefs, even bleached reefs. Where last year there were healthy corals, this year there was only gray ooze,” she wrote in an e-mail.

          2. Err right Dappled, where’s the warming??

            Worst coral death strikes at SE Asia – 19 Oct 2010

            “International marine scientists say that a huge coral death which has struck Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean reefs over recent months has highlighted the urgency of controlling global carbon emissions.

            Many reefs are dead or dying across the Indian Ocean and into the Coral Triangle following a bleaching event that extends from the Seychelles in the west to Sulawesi and the Philippines in the east and include reefs in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and many sites in western and eastern Indonesia.

            “It is certainly the worst coral die-off we have seen since 1998. It may prove to be the worst such event known to science,” says Dr Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook Universities. “So far around 80 percent of Acropora colonies and 50 per cent of colonies from other species have died since the outbreak began in May this year.”

            1. From your link above

              Starts with a political statement:

              International marine scientists say that a huge coral death which has struck Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean reefs over recent months has highlighted the urgency of controlling global carbon emissions.

              Then says:

              The cause of the bleaching event was a large pool of super-hot water which swept into the eastern Indian Ocean region several months ago, shocking the corals and causing them to shed the symbiotic algae that nourish them, thereby losing color and “bleaching”. If the corals do not regain their algae they starve to death.

              Fair enough, a scientific explanation

              But then:

              My colleagues and I have high confidence these successive ocean warming episodes, which exceed the normal tolerance range of warm-water corals, are driven by human-induced global warming

              Have high confidence? Based on what?

              Welcome to Post Normal Science.

      3. Yep, they keep up with sea level rise, they don’t overtake it.

        BTW Alacran reefs is perhaps not a good example if you’re interested in human habitability:

        The trip to Alacranes is not for the weak of heart as there are no
        installations for receiving people so you MUST take your own water, food,
        tents, etc. And once there, you have to be careful to not get hurt, cut or
        whatever, as there are no doctors, hospitals, etc. and it takes hours to get
        back to the coast.

  4. I love the Maldives! They should be named the Hypocrite Isles. What a terrific business plan they have!

    [Snipped. Any more content free insults, Lank, and you’ll be on permanent moderation. GR]

    1. “Islam is the state religion of Maldives, and adherence to it is legally required of citizens by a revision of the constitution in 2008: Article 9, Section D states that a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.” (Wiki)
      Memo to micro-states still trying to pull this shop-worn victim-of-the-west stunt. First live up to basic standards of human decency.

      1. Ah, yes. Islamophobia: the “acceptable” face of modern anti-Semitism. Completely unsurprising, considering that denialists have already been known to indulge in Nazi-style blood libel.

      2. Note: ‘become a citizen of the Maldives’. At least they put it in writing. Are you seriously trying to claim that there exist no similar, though unwritten (in the law, that is), barriers to entry of Muslims into pretty much any Western country?

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