Lentis/Small Island Countries and Sea Level Rise

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Global warming and climate change have significant consequences, one of which is rising sea levels. This rise in sea level is attributed mainly to melting glaciers and ice sheets, as well as the thermal expansion of the water as its temperature increases.[1] Each year from 2006 to 2015, global mean sea level rose by 3.6 millimeters, more than twice the average rate of the previous century. With current trends, over the next eighty years, global mean sea level is conservatively projected to rise a third of a meter above what it was at the start of the century, but could even rise 2-3 meters.[1][2] This is particularly dangerous for small island states, such as the Maldives which has an average ground elevation of only 1.5 meters above sea level. President Mohamed Nasheed of the Republic of Maldives expressed the gravity of this crisis as he spoke to the UN Chronicle in 2009: “...with a sea-level rise of over 1.5 metres, hundreds of millions of people would be dead. They would simply be wiped out.” [3]

Vulnerability of Small Island States[edit]

Small island states are among the most vulnerable areas to accelerated sea-level rise for many reasons. Because of the small land area of these islands, they already have significantly limited resources to address existing environmental problems of rampant population growth and overdevelopment, which makes it even more difficult to address land submergence, coastal erosion, increased storm flooding, and high water tables caused by rising sea levels.[4] The high coastline-to-land-area ratio, additionally, forces agricultural lands, infrastructure, and residences to be located along the coasts .[2] Thus rising sea levels are especially damaging to the economies and societies of these small island states. Furthermore, freshwater supply of these islands are also limited to mainly groundwater sources and rainfall, and groundwater sources are vulnerable to salinization as the sea water rises. [2]

Recent Measures[edit]

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is an intergovernmental organization of small island states that aims to mitigate climate change, conserve the ocean, and achieve sustainable development.[5]. 39 of 44 AOSIS states are UN members, giving them a platform to voice their concerns about the rising sea levels on a broader scale. The Small Island States Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA) pathway was adopted at the UN Conference on small island developing states (SIDS).[6] The SAMOA pathway outlines the steps necessary for SIDS to achieve sustainable development by 2030, while also highlighting the roadblocks that climate change and sea level rise pose. The SAMOA pathway successfully achieved international support, obtaining over 300 partnerships.[6]

On 23 September 2019, at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, countries discussed means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet the aims of the 2016 Paris Agreement. The central aim of the Paris agreement is to "strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius."[7] Initially, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres estimated that around 60 countries would enhance their emission commitments and increase their support for the populations most vulnerable to climate change, especially SIDS.[8]

Three days before the summit, an estimated four million participants across 150 countries engaged in a global climate strike in an attempt to pressure countries into meeting their emission goals.[9][10] The strikes first began in the Pacific Islands, where protesters urged wealthier nations to increase their efforts in combating the rising sea level; student protesters in Kiribati were heard chanting: "We are not sinking, we are fighting."[11] Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old climate activist, sailed across the Atlantic to speak at the summit in New York. She criticized countries that are not on track to meet their emission goals: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words."[12] Her speech gained widespread media attention and helped inspire a second wave of protests four days later.[13]

Although many countries increased their 2016 commitments by the end of the summit, further emission reductions are still needed to reach the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C. Small Island Developing States collectively pledged to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030, and a zero-carbon economy by 2050.[14] In contrast, some of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters declined to make comparable changes.[15] China refused to increase their Paris agreement commitments. India pledged to enhance their renewable energy capacity by 2022, but did not pledge to reduce coal use. The US, who opted out of the Paris Agreement in June 2017, declined to speak at the event.

Political Challenges to Small Island States[edit]

Sea level rise disproportionately threatens small island states compared to larger nations who contribute more to the changing climate. Major climate change contributors, like the United States, outpace SIS’s like Grenada thousands of times over in tons of greenhouse gases emitted each year.[1] This disparity between those contributing to sea level rise and those suffering from its consequences has challenged SIS’s in enacting policy that can reduce the future effects of rising seas.

SIS’s tend to have lower populations and generate much lower GDP than their counterparts in climate change discussion.w:List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal) The total population of all small island states is about 65 million, and their GDPs tend to rank in the bottom 20% of UN-recognized countries.The poverty of SIS’s means fewer bargaining chips to use in international policy talks. With lower bargaining power, small island states struggle to effectively push policy that may restrict the industrial power of larger countries. The result has been an emphasis on adaptive policy when it comes to sea level rise, rather than proactive. Large countries like the United States, who already provide financial support to impoverished SIS’s, have pledged aid in the event of disaster brought about by sea level rise. Small island states are working to tip the scale towards proactive measures on a global scale, due to the fact that this would involve large scale changes to industrial processes that are large contributors to the GDPs of large countries.

Small island states generally rely on tourism as a large contributor, if not the largest contributor to their economies.[16] This has created a reluctance to go on, as Dessima Williams, the UN representative for Grenada describes it, “a crusade around the world,” for fear that attention brought to the threat sea level rise poses to SIS’s will lead to decreased revenue from tourism by scaring away customers.[3] Many small island states, including Grenada, are also former colonies, and maintain good relationships with former imperial rulers. SIS governments fear that drawing attention to issues of sea level rise and climate change may threaten these international relationships.

In order to enact proactive policy that will be enforced at an international level, SIS’s are using technology to build a case for the risks of sea level rise, and banding together in organizations like AOSIS, which allow them to effectively pool their international policy bargaining chips. Fiji and the Solomon Islands are working with Catapult Satellite applications using funds from the British International Partnership Programme to develop more quantitative measures of sea level rise effects on coastlines. While this technology has the potential to sway policy if severe enough consequences can be drawn from the data, satellite imaging and topographical computer modeling are expensive high-level technologies out of reach for many SIS’s without international funding.


In a 2019 journal from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, it was established that climate change occurs on timescales “ from decades to millennia.”[17] This journal suggests that sea level rise as a result of climate change is already certain, but that changes now to emissions may slow the rate at which the consequences of climate change arise.

Future extensions of this chapter may consider expanding upon the studies of sea level rise and the severity of its consequences, such as the 2016 study by MIT [18].

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  2. a b c Rubenstein, Madeleine (2011). A Changing Climate for Small Island States. Earth Institute. https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2011/12/15/a-changing-climate-for-small-island-states/
  3. a b Nemat Sedat (2019). https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/small-islands-rising-seas
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  12. Thunberg, G. (2019, September 23). If world leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them | Greta Thunberg. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/23/world-leaders-generation-climate-breakdown-greta-thunberg.
  13. Al Jazeera. (2019, September 21). 'No Planet B': Millions take to streets in global climate strike. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/planet-thousands-join-global-climate-strike-asia-190920040636503.html.
  14. Kosolapov, E. (2019). 77 Countries, 100+ Cities Commit to Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050 at Climate Summit. https://sdg.iisd.org/news/77-countries-100-cities-commit-to-net-zero-carbon-emissions-by-2050-at-climate-summit/
  15. Rosane, O. (2019). UN Climate Action Summit Falls 'Woefully Short' of Expectations. https://www.ecowatch.com/un-climate-action-summit-2640575796.html.
  16. OECD (2018) https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/9789264287648-6-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/9789264287648-6-en&mimeType=text/html
  17. Alexander Nauels, et al. (2019) Attributing Long Term Sea Level Rise to Paris Agreement Emission Pledges https://www.pnas.org/content/116/47/23487
  18. Mark Dwortzan (2016) https://news.mit.edu/2016/how-much-difference-will-paris-agreement-make-0422