For all small islands, climate change will present a growing challenge to their safety, security, and livelihoods. For some, climate change will threaten their very existence. Nowhere is the intersection of climate change, security, and human rights more apparent than in small island states and nowhere is the case for immediate action to curb carbon emissions more compelling. These pages catalogue the numerous environmental issues that small islands must grapple with. Below are some of the reasons for why small islands are particularly vulnerable.
The total land area of most small island states is small relative to other countries and they can ill-afford to lose landmass to rising sea level. Small size also tends to mean a limited resource base, making small island economies dependent on a limited number of products. The risk of saltwater intrusion into the groundwater supply is also more pronounced for small islands. Also, small islands leave residents few places to hide in the face of severe storms.
Many small island states are located far from major trade routes, which raises the cost of imports. It is likely that small island states will become increasingly dependent on imported food and construction materials as a result of climate change in order to compensate for less productive farming and fishing and to build the necessary infrastructure for adaptation. Remoteness also makes the provision of outside emergency relief slower and more difficult, an important consideration in a future that promises more extreme weather events. The islands within archipelago states are sometimes even remote from each other, complicating coordination and communication.
Many small island states consist of low-lying islands, making them extremely vulnerable to a rise in sea level. A single flood can cripple an entire island for weeks. With limited higher ground, people are left more exposed to flooding as well as to tropical storms and hurricanes. A few low-lying island states, for example the Maldives and Kiribati, are already forming contingency plans to evacuate their populations.
Dependence on marine ecosystems
It is becoming increasingly clear that marine ecosystems will be especially hard hit by the effects of anthropogenic carbon emissions. Coral bleaching and ocean acidification are already causing reefs to collapse and these impacts a likely to grow worse in the future. Marine ecosystems are the basis of many small island economies, driving fishing and tourism industries. Damage to coral reefs can also jeopardize an island's food security.
A large percentage of island populations and infrastructure is situated near the coast. Many islands are so small and narrow that coastal living is the only option available. The impacts of rising sea level and tropical storms are most intense near the coast.
Atoll and reef islands are made of porous calcium carbonate from ancient coral reefs, and as a result, flood from within. Many of these islands also have poor soil for farming, which is only made worse by salt deposits left from tidal flooding.
Limited Financial Resources and Infrastructure
Most small island states are not wealthy countries. In fact, a number of them are among the group of least developed countries. Small island states are rarely equipped with the tidal barriers and coastal reinforcements necessary to weather the higher tides of the future. Nor will they be able to pay for these enhancements to infrastructure on their own. In some cases, the cost of protecting entire islands from rising sea level and storm surges will be prohibitive.