Island nations drowning: ‘This is how a Pacific atoll dies’

As world leaders from wealthy nations recognize the “existential threat” of climate change, Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano races to save his tiny island nation from drowning by raising it 13 to 16 feet (4 to 5 meters) above sea level through land reclamation. .

As experts issue warnings of the Marshall Islands’ potential uninhabitability, President David Kabua must reconcile the inequity of a sea wall built to protect a house that is now flooding another next door.

This is the reality of climate change: some people talk about it from afar, while others have to live with it on a daily basis.

Natano and Kabua tried to show this reality on Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Together they launched the Rising Nations initiative, a global partnership to preserve the sovereignty, heritage and rights of Pacific atoll island nations whose very existence is threatened by climate change.

Natano described how rising sea levels have impacted everything from the soil his people rely on to plant crops, to homes, roads and power lines being washed away. The cost of living, he said, eventually becomes too much to bear, causing families to leave and the nation itself to demise.

“This is how a Pacific atoll dies,” Natano said. “This is how our islands will cease to exist.”

The Rising Nations initiative seeks a political declaration by the international community to preserve the sovereignty and rights of Pacific atoll island countries; creating a comprehensive program to build and fund adaptation and resilience projects to help local communities sustain their livelihoods; a living repository of the unique culture and heritage of each Pacific Atoll Island country; and support to acquire UNESCO World Heritage designation.

The initiative has already gained support from countries like the United States, Germany, South Korea and Canada, all of which have recognized the unique burden that island nations like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands have to bear.

A report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in February highlighted the vulnerability of small island developing states and other global hotspots such as Africa and South Asia, whose populations are 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather conditions compared to less vulnerable regions of the world. .

If warming exceeds a few tenths of a degree more, it could make some areas — including some small islands — uninhabitable, said report co-author Adelle Thomas of Climate Analytics and the University of the Bahamas. On Wednesday, Natano noted that Tuvalu and its Pacific neighbors “have done nothing to cause climate change”, with their contribution to carbon emissions amounting to less than 0.03% of the global total.

“This is the first time in history that the collective action of many nations has rendered several sovereign countries uninhabitable,” he said.

Representatives of other nations who attended Wednesday’s event did not deflect responsibility. Whether they will do enough to change things remains to be seen.

Several have pledged money to help island nations pay for early warning systems and upgrade their buildings to better protect them from hurricanes and other weather events. But there was less talk of mitigating the problem of climate change and more of how to adapt to the devastation it has already wrought.

“We see this train coming, and it’s coming down the track, and we have to get out of the way,” said Amy Pope, deputy director general of the International Organization for Migration.

German climate envoy Jennifer Morgan, who also attended Wednesday’s event, spoke about her country’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. But while Germany remains determined to phase out coal as an energy source by 2030, it had to reactivate coal-fired electricity. factories to weather the coming winter amid energy shortages resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

For the president of the Marshall Islands, rich nations could do much more. During his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Kabua urged world leaders to tackle sectors that depend on fossil fuels, including aviation and shipping. He highlighted the Marshall Islands’ carbon tax proposal for international shipping which he said “will drive the transition to zero-emission shipping, channeling resources from polluters to the most vulnerable.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also encouraged the prosecution of the world’s biggest polluters. In his opening address to the assembly on Tuesday, he urged wealthier countries to tax the profits of energy companies and redirect funds to “countries suffering loss and damage from the climate crisis” and those struggling with the rising cost of living.

In the meantime, as rich countries call for action rather than words in their own speeches at the UN, Kabua, Natano and their fellow island nation leaders will continue to face the daily reality of climate change – and will try to continue to exist.


Philadelphia-based Associated Press reporter Pia Sarkar is on assignment to cover the United Nations General Assembly. Follow her on Twitter at—TK and for more AP coverage of the UN General Assembly, visit

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