Here comes the flood

After spending the day walking around Washington in ~100 degree heat in my shirt and tie, wishing for a sudden winter storm or maybe a man-sized freezer that I could crawl inside, I hopped on the Metro for the crowded, 30 minute, un-air conditioned ride home. On the trip I found this in my news feed:

The indigenous community of the Guna (Kuna) live on islands off Panama and along a narrow strip of its coast, in the province of Guna Yala (Kuna Yala). But global warming and sea level rise are threatening their lives on those islands, and those of Carti Sugdup (Gardi Sugdup) have decided that they have to move to the mainland.

I’m complaining about not having air-conditioning on the train ride home, and meanwhile these peoples’ entire existence, as they know it, is being lost partly because I use too damn much air-conditioning as it is. It turns out that four of the islands of Kuna Yala need to be evacuated, and some 36,000 people resettled on the mainland, their livelihoods, which were subsistence-level to begin with, for the most part destroyed.

It gets worse.

Sea-level rise brought on by climate change is not some still-off-in-the-future hypothetical that can be illustrated, however dramatically, by computer-generated images of what American cities might look like at some point. For people living on small islands and in low-lying coastal areas all over the world, the problem of rising waters is immediate and devastating. The Kuna are only one example:

Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding, and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Some of the small island nations at risk from rising sea levels (via)
Some of the small island nations at risk from rising sea levels (via)

The Maldives years ago started putting money into a fund that can be used to buy a new homeland for its people should they be forced to leave the islands, though that was a project led by former President Mohamed Nasheed and it’s not clear that the government has continued that program since Nasheed was forced to abdicate. Kiribati, a nation of 32 atolls and one island, has already seen internal migration as outlying islands become uninhabitable and the residents flee to the (relatively) large atoll of Tarawa. The President of Kiribati has urged his citizens to evacuate, but “evacuate” seems to me to be the wrong word. “Evacuation” implies a sudden emergency that will eventually pass, a need to quickly flee but with a promise that one day you will be able to return. I suppose “emigration” is a better word, but even that implies that you’re leaving a home to which you could return if you chose, if circumstances changed. These people are being evicted, their lands occupied as surely as if an invading army were going door to door, street to street, clearing them out and forcing them to abandon their homes and their livelihoods, and they have no hope of ever going back. They will be literally stateless unless their governments manage to buy (or find more aggressive means of seizing) land somewhere else upon they can conceivably rebuild their nation, but not their lifestyle and probably not their culture. As unprepared as the world is for most of the major effects of climate change, it is wholly unprepared for the time when some or all of the residents of these island nations are cast adrift. Maritime law may allow governments of these nations to retain claims to undersea resources, but there is no law in place for the resettlement of stranded peoples who literally have no home anymore.

I know there are still people so blinkered or so beholden to polluting industries as to deny that mankind is driving climate change, but is anybody outside of the insane fringe still denying that it’s happening? Because even if you don’t think we’re causing it, if you acknowledge that it’s happening then you must also acknowledge that the global community needs to start preparing for the consequences. For the record, I’m with Juan Cole:

This [climate change] is a crisis that needs a world-wide Manhattan Project with a 10 year deadline, starting now.


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