The U.N. International Organization for Migration projects that there will be 200 million climate change migrants by 2050 (1). Some estimates range up to a billion, or more than one in every ten people in the world. For context, the total population of the Pacific Islands excluding New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea is approximately 2.8 million. These people may not seem numerically significant in the face of the vast human cost of climate change. However, the threat the Islands are facing is existential. The mitigation, adaptation, and migration strategies Pacific Islands nations adopt will be key to the preservation – or destruction – of a set of unique cultures, histories, and places.
While the total carbon emissions of these island nations is minuscule, their inhabitants will experience some of the most dramatic impacts of climate change. On the other hand, wealthy Western countries have emitted greenhouse gases at a frantic rate for over a century, and much of the wealth that those emissions generated will now be used to shield themselves from harm. Countries like the US can afford to build seawalls, evacuate their coastal populations, and restructure their agricultural systems, and indeed all these steps will be vital to minimizing the impact of climate change.
It’s tempting to divide the world into victims and perpetrators of climate change. But this is not what a climate justice framework calls for. Rather than viewing Pacific Islands nations as powerless, passive victims of colonialism and now of climate change, it’s important to recognize these countries as autonomous, self-sufficient actors. Many Pacific Islands citizens are opting to stay and ‘radically adapt’ (2). The West ought to take notes.
International observers have often failed to recognize the importance of the land to the preservation of culture. For example, the Marshall Islands were settled in the 2nd millennium BCE (3). To Marshallese people, their land is the setting for millennia of myths and stories, a storehouse of both knowledge and natural wealth and the ancestral homeland where they hope to be able to raise their children. As the Marshallese complaint to the UN post-World War II said, “Land means a great deal to the Marshallese[...]Take away their land and their spirits go also” (4).
If the sea continues to rise, the only way to keep this tradition alive may be to reclaim and elevate land, a technologically feasible —albeit expensive — project. The Marshall Islands doesn’t have the 1 billion USD necessary for the project.
The United States – which conducted 67 nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 50s, causing many islanders to migrate away due to the threat of radioactive exposure – may have a moral responsibility to provide this kind of aid (5). In this particular case, the argument for American aid is strengthened by historical fact. In 2001, the US declined to pay out a $2 billion claim assessed by the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal. The MINCT did not even finish paying the original settlement before it ran out of funds. About half of valid claimants have died waiting for their claim, and $45 million of the original settlement remains unpaid (6). Now, as the Marshallese face yet another existential threat, the US has another chance to deliver justice.
Of course, under 2+ degree warming scenarios, this kind of radical adaptation may simply not be viable. In these circumstances, it’s vital that high-emitter nations in the West and in Asia do not close their doors to climate migrants from the Pacific. Rather, these nations should invest in an infrastructure to help climate migrants both adapt to their new settings and preserve their cultures. The UN International Organization on Migration advises that if climate migration becomes unavoidable, host nations should “enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration” and provide “humanitarian assistance and protection for those on the move already” (7).
Furthermore, in trying to encourage cultural preservation, governments would do well to learn from many of the Pasifika migrants who have already established cultural communities in new homelands. Government programs might include language classes and job training programs as well as physical infrastructure in pre-existing Pacific Islander communities. These governments should also include legislation to ensure that climate migrants are explicitly included in the healthcare and social service nets.
Marshall Islands leaders have been “tireless advocates for climate action and human rights on the international stage”, including emissions reduction and stricter warming targets (8). They’ve also actively challenged nuclear states in the Hague to keep perceived treaty promises to disarm (9). Highly developed Western nations have so far failed to keep their emissions reduction promises. It’s not too late to change course – all that’s required is listening to Pacific Islands voices and acting on their demands.