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Marshall Islands Journal Majuro, Marshall Islands

April 5, 2002


There is an oddly uninformed tenor to the increasing complaint of small islands such as Tuvalu about the impact of global climate change. At a Pacific leaders meeting in Hawai‘i in March, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu made an impassioned statement about how Tuvalu’s islands were fast disappearing under the onrushing tides brought about by climate change.

This grabbed headlines worldwide. But a follow-up story from the French news agency AFP carried the next week in the Pacific Islands Report Internet site contrasted the Tuvalu leader’s comments with the scientific data obtained by Australian researchers from a tidal gauge that was placed in Tuvalu 10 years ago to provide daily ocean data. According to the data from the tidal gauge, there has been no sea level rise in Tuvalu.

Frankly, we think both are missing the point. Given the long-term nature of the impact of climate change, we’d be surprised if there was significant ocean level rise at the present time.

Secondly, to promote all atoll erosion/changes as related to climate change seriously undermines the case that small islands are attempting to make at the international level. Why? It’s like crying wolf. If Pacific leaders continue to say the current erosion problems being faced by most of the islands with some urban population are related to climate change, when they’re not (or at least not all), people will stop paying attention to the bigger picture question: if actions aren’t taken now to reduce the output of pollution globally in the next 30 years or so, a difficult-to-reverse cycle of ocean level rise will be in motion.

In every major urban center in small islands, from Majuro to Tarawa (Kiribati) to Funafuti (Tuvalu), there is big environmental change. A primary reason for this change is the causeways that were built to link islands together, covering over natural ocean-to-lagoon water channels. That changed water flow into and out of atolls, changing erosion patterns, reef growth, and much more. Add to that a significant amount of dredging for construction and the building of dozens of seawalls and the result is that the natural topography of these environmentally fragile atolls has been changed beyond recognition.

Despite the heavy man-made imprint on current environmental degradation in atolls, there is also some climate change involvement. The record of the past few years demonstrates that global changes in climate are fostering more severe and possibly more frequent climate variations and storms. For example, more powerful storms, more severe El Niños, etc. Stronger and/or more frequent weather events take their toll on small islands that have few resources or marginal land areas.

The Pacific area in general and small islands in particular are gaining wider international attention for a variety of their unique needs. That interest shouldn’t be undermined with uninformed statements blaming all current atoll environmental problems on climate change.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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