Vulnerability of Island States to Climate Change: Urgent Need for Concrete Climate Action

Vulnerability of Island States to Climate Change: Urgent Need for Concrete Climate Action

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Island states across the globe are facing an unprecedented threat in the form of climate change. As the world grapples with rising temperatures, melting glaciers, and more frequent extreme weather events, these vulnerable nations are at the forefront of the crisis. Among these, Maui in Hawaii is a striking example of climate change’s devastating impact on human lives and fragile ecosystems. This article delves into the vulnerability of island states, using Maui as a case study, and highlights the urgent need for concrete climate action to mitigate the impending catastrophe.

Maui: A Microcosm of Climate Change Consequences

Maui, nestled in the Pacific Ocean, has been experiencing extreme weather conditions that have wreaked havoc on the island. The island’s communities are grappling with the direct consequences of a changing climate, from intensified hurricanes and torrential rains to prolonged droughts and sea-level rise to evolving ecosystems. As a result, the loss of property and, tragically, human lives have become an all-too-familiar reality for Maui’s residents.

Vulnerability to Extreme Weather Incidents

Maui has witnessed a dramatic increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Over the past decade, the island has faced a 30% increase in Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, leading to widespread destruction and economic losses. (D. Nugent. et al., 2020).

Vulnerability of Island States to Climate Change: Urgent Need for Concrete Climate Action
This photo provided by County of Maui shows fire and smoke filling the sky from wildfires on the intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. AP

Maui is experiencing one of the worst wildfires in its history, killing at least 55 people, and destroying over 270 structures. According to the Washington Post, the fire was driven by strong winds from a passing hurricane, which brought heavy rain and flooding to other parts of the island. Consequently, the fire burned through historic Lahaina Town, a popular tourist destination, and Kula, a residential area in the upcountry region.

The wildfire was not an isolated event but a global trend of increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events due to climate change. Climate change is making hurricanes more powerful and unpredictable, droughts more severe and prolonged, and rainfall more erratic and intense. These enabling conditions create a perfect storm for wildfires, which can spread rapidly and unpredictably across dry vegetation and windy terrain (CNN, 2023).

Vulnerability to Rising Sea Levels

Due to global warming, sea levels around Maui have increased by approximately 9 inches over the past century. This has led to coastal erosion, inundation of low-lying areas, and the degradation of critical coastal habitats. Sea level rise is a serious threat to the island of Maui, home to many beautiful beaches, coral reefs, and cultural sites.

According to the State of Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise Viewer, an online atlas that shows the projected impacts of sea level rise on Hawaiʻi, Maui could lose up to 34% of its beaches by 2100 if sea level rises by 3.9 feet. These figures are the intermediate estimate by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This would affect the tourism industry and the coastal ecosystems, infrastructure, and communities that depend on them.

Vulnerability to Evolving Ecosystems

Maui has diverse and unique ecosystems, ranging from dry grasslands to wet forests, coral reefs to bogs and lakes. These ecosystems provide habitat for many native and endemic species, such as the ‘ohi‘a tree, the nēnē goose, and the humpback whale. They also support the culture, economy, and well-being of the people who visit Maui. The island’s unique ecosystems are changing rapidly, from lush rainforests to diverse marine life. Many plant and animal species struggle to adapt to the shifting climate, leading to food chain disruptions and potential extinction. 

Global Perspective: Vulnerable Island Nations at Risk

Vulnerability of Island States to Climate Change: Urgent Need for Concrete Climate Action

While Maui serves as a poignant example, it is just one among many island nations facing the wrath of climate change. The vulnerability of these nations is exacerbated by their small size, limited resources, and heavy reliance on a stable environment for economic sustenance. A closer look at other island countries underscores the urgency of the situation

  • Maldives: With an average elevation of just 1.5 meters above sea level, the Maldives is acutely threatened by rising sea levels. By 2100, the entire nation could be underwater, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. (USAID, 2023).

  • Kiribati: This Pacific nation is already witnessing the relocation of its citizens due to sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion, jeopardizing its freshwater sources and agriculture. The country is also experiencing coastal erosion, drought, and biodiversity loss. Kiribati is seeking international support to adapt to climate change by strengthening its resilience and exploring options such as raising its islands or relocating its population. (DFAT, 2023)

  • Tuvalu: Like Kiribati, Tuvalu faces the risk of becoming uninhabitable within decades due to rising sea levels, making it a powerful symbol of the global climate crisis. Tuvalu is experiencing coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion that damages the land, crops, and freshwater sources. The rising sea levels and storm surges that flood the islands threaten the infrastructure and displace the people. Increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall affect the Tuvaluans’ health, food security, and livelihoods (The Guardian, 2019). Tuvalu is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and needs urgent action to protect its future.

The Call for Concrete Climate Action

The alarming situation these island states face demands immediate and decisive action at both local and global levels. Governments, international organizations, and individuals. All must collaborate to tackle climate change and its devastating consequences. This action must include:

  • Mitigation Measures: Drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming and mitigate the intensity of extreme weather events.

  • Adaptation Strategies: Developing and implementing robust adaptation strategies to help island states cope with the inevitable impacts of climate change, including investing in resilient infrastructure and sustainable agriculture.

  • International Cooperation: Strengthening international partnerships to provide financial and technical support to vulnerable island nations, enabling them to build climate resilience and adapt effectively.

  • Renewable Energy Transition: Accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and promote sustainable economic growth.

The vulnerability of island states to climate change, as exemplified by Maui and mirrored in countless other nations, serves as a dire warning for the global community. Urgent and comprehensive climate action is not just a moral imperative but a necessity to safeguard lives, cultures, and ecosystems. We can create a more sustainable and resilient future for our planet’s most vulnerable inhabitants by channelling efforts toward mitigation, adaptation, and international collaboration.

Sources

K. Ables. et al. (2023). At least 55 dead as fires ravage Maui; Hawaii governor warns ‘climate change is here”. Retrieved on August 11, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/08/11/maui-fires-deaths-lahaina-hawaii/

Sea Level Rise: State of Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise ViewerAn Interactive Mapping Tool in Support of the State of Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report Retrieved on August 11, 2023, from https://www.pacioos.hawaii.edu/shoreline/slr-hawaii/

Facing dire sea level rise threat, Maldives turns to climate change solutions to survive – ABC News (go.com)Retrieved on August 11, 2023, fromhttps://abcnews.go.com/International/facing-dire-sea-level-rise-threat-maldives-turns/story?id=80929487

Eleanor Ainge Roy (2019). Seascape: the state of our oceans: ‘One day we’ll disappear’: Tuvalu’s sinking islands Retrieved on August 11, 2023, from https://theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/16/one-day-disappear-tuvalu-sinking-islands-rising-seas-climate-change

Climate change in Tuvalu – Wikipedia Retrieved on August 11, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_in_Tuvalu(opens in a new tab)

Kiribati – Australia’s commitment to strengthening climate and disaster resilience in the Pacific | Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Retrieved on August 11, 2023, fromhttps://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/kiribati-australias-commitment-to-strengthening-climate-and-disaster-resilience-in-the-pacific

Noah Sary(2020). Climate change destroys Kiribati’s ecosystems and economy | by Noah sary | The Climate Reporter | Medium. State of Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise Viewer | PacIOOS (hawaii.edu) Retrieved on August 11, 2023, from https://medium.com/the-climate-reporter/climate-change-destroys-kiribatis-ecosystems-and-economy-27b0ecd7a96b

Rachel Ramirez (2023) Possible causes of Maui wildfire’s spread rate include drought, nonnative species and climate change Retrieved on August 11, 2023, from https://cnn.com/2023/08/09/us/climate-change-reason-maui-fire/index.html

Hawaii: Devastating wildfires in Maui and how climate change is making it worse – India Today Retrieved on August 11, 2023, from https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/hawaii-devastating-wildfires-maui-climate-change-2419298-2023-08-10

Maanvi et.al (2023) Hawaii fires: ‘search and rescue still primary concern’ says official after Biden approves disaster declaration – as it happened | Hawaii | Retrieved on August 11, 2023, from https://theguardian.com/us-news/live/2023/aug/10/hawaii-fires-wildfires-lahaina-maui-death-toll-latest-updates

N’dea Yancey-Bragg et.al (2023) Hawaii wildfire updates: 36 dead and over 270 structures damaged (usatoday.com)Retrieved on August 11, 2023, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2023/08/09/maui-hawaii-wildfire-live-updates/70556894007/

Vulnerability of Island States to Climate Change: Urgent Need for Concrete Climate Action

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Obie Agusiegbe

A Certified Sustainability and Environmental Management Expert with over 20 years’ experience in the sustainability sector. She works with organizations interested in improving their sustainability performance by assisting them identify and implement ways to include environmental and social aspects into their existing offerings. Her solutions are innovative and build bridges globally International Development | Africa | Clean Technologies | Climate Resilience | Humanitarian | Fairness
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