Island Nations and Climate Refugees

Small Island Community

Lately I’ve been burdened with the thought of climate refugees from small island states. Because of our actions- consumerism and fast industry driven by fossil fuels- we are going to lose small island nations- in our lifetime.  We’re talking about losing entire countries! You know what countries are filled with?  PEOPLE! 

So because we drive our cars, buy our stuff, throw our stuff away and buy more stuff, eat tons of meat, monocrop, cut down old arboreal forests, and continue to power our lives with fossil fuels, we are displacing countries full of people.  People, by the way, that have limited contributions to climate change and mostly live off what the land provides.  And even those provisions are suffering now, because of climate change. These communities- made up of men, women, children, families- suffer daily the consequences of our luxury.  (no need to ask why I am a guilty granola, right?) 

climate change: a reality now

In the most extreme cases, island communities will become climate refugees- people that are displaced from their homes because of environmental unsuitability. The losses of climate change are immense: losing their homes to the seas; losing their livelihoods to warming waters that change fisheries; losing fresh water to salt water intrusion from massive storms and rising sea levels; losing their culture, country and identity.  They will become climate refugees, having to leave a home that is under water to start over in a country not yet as impacted.


(Granola crumb! Did you know it is pronounced “Ki-ri-bahs?).  Kiribati is the first place on Earth to see the new day.  But Kiribati is also the first to see the new climate, with extreme weather, including more frequent cyclones with intensifying winds and heavier rainfall, flooding and storm surges.  Its people will be the first to lose their country, history and heritage to man-made climate change.  One solution?  “Migration with Dignity”, a term used to describe former president Anote Tong’s plan, not to save Kiribati, but to save it’s 120,000 residents by buying elevated land elsewhere for its climate refugees.  Unfortunately, he has since been replaced by an official that is not prioritizing climate change the way Tong has.  Learn more about Kiribati in this brief article.


Vanuatu, made up of 83 volcanic islands in the South Pacific, is a beautiful island nation. Subsistence agricultural communities throughout grow coconut, bananas, yams, and many fruits and vegetables.  It is one of the lowest greenhouse gas emitting countries in the world and one of the places where sea level is rising fastest.  They experience extreme weather including hurricanes and heavy rainfall, which threatens their food crops and leads to rising prices and hunger.  Warming oceans change their local fisheries, threatening their way of life and a major part of the food chain of over 270,000 people.  They are considering suing major polluters for compensation for their climatic crisis.  To learn more, visit this brief article by RTE.

marshall islands

The Marshall Islands are a low-lying US associated state between Hawaii and the Philippines. It has declared a climate crisis.  They experience King Tides, irregular droughts and saltwater intrusion.  Conservative models predict that sea level rise will render the nation uninhabitable by mid-century.  Their population of nearly 60,000 people will have the choice of relocating or living on elevated artificial islands.  Relocation to the US is a common path, with the free association agreement currently in place.  But that ends in 2023 and may not be renewed. Read this article to hear about the role of the US in the Marshall Island’s future.

the maldives

The country of honeymoons and surf trips.  And one of the lowest lying countries in the world, with most of the islands sitting only one meter above sea level.  The Maldives experience high vulnerability to sea level rise, coastal flooding, storm surges, intense rainfall and hurricane force winds, as well as longer dry seasons that threaten potable drinking water sources.  These 1200 low-lying islands are home to half a million people threatened by a changing and unpredictable climate.  Read a UNDP summary here.

Most of these countries are severely impacted by climate change through no fault of their own.  Despite contributing very little to the overall crisis, they are some of the earliest victims.  So when you wonder if your efforts to make the world a better place matter, think of these small island developing states.  Think of their people.  Share what you know.  Our efforts matter, and change starts with us.

To see some personal steps you can take to be more sustainable, visit 7 Simple Habits to be More Sustainable.

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