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Rising Seas Are A Real Threat To These People Now: Communities On The Forefront Of Global Warming

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Rising Seas Are A Real Threat To These People Now: Communities On The Forefront Of Global Warming

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As sea levels continue to rise, island nations and vulnerable communities find themselves at the frontline with many facing relocation programmes.

Alister Doyle, author of The Great Melt, discusses the future of rising sea levels and what we need to do now for these communities.

Alister Doyle

Thu 4 Nov 2021

On a trip to the Pacific region in 2018, Britain’s Prince Harry said that the remote Fijian village of Vunidogoloa was the first in the world forced to move inland to escape rising seas.

Sadly, the Duke of Sussex may have been wrong – some other communities on the frontlines of climate change had to relocate inland before Vunidogoloa in 2014.

Still, he put a spotlight on an often underestimated trend – ever more people will move to higher ground this century as global warming melts ice from Antarctica to Greenland and pushes up ocean levels.

Signpost pointing to a relocated village in Fiji

Vunidogoloa was the first village in Fiji to relocate because of rising sea levels

The homes affected by rising sea levels

Still, he put a spotlight on an often underestimated trend – ever more people will move to higher ground this century as global warming melts ice from Antarctica to Greenland and pushes up ocean levels.

When I visited Fiji to learn about how people are coping on the frontlines of climate change, the Vunidogoloa village chief Simione Botu took me down to the shore to an idyllic beach backed by coconut palms.

“This is my house,” he tells me, gesturing with his arms at the sand.

At first it’s hard to grasp what he means, but then I realise he’s pointing to a rotten wooden stumps and a small lump of concrete sticking out of the sand. This is all that remains of his boyhood home.

Botu, in his early 60s, built a new home about 50 metres inland after this childhood home was washed away by Pacific storms.

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Simione Botu standing in his home

Chief Simione Botu lost his boyhood home because of climate change

From 2012-14, the Fijian government and the villagers cooperated to rebuild the entire village of 150 people on a hillside nearby. New Vunidogoloa is widely viewed around the world as a successful model for relocation, especially by involving the villagers.

It has has bright-painted blue wooden homes.

Women sit under a mango tree making brooms from palms, men are on a nearby hillside harvesting pineapples, children are laughing as they roll old car tyres around a playground.

It’s far from perfect – villagers say the government failed to install kitchens as promised, and it was agonising to leave behind ancestors’ graves by the shore.

But it’s a lot better, and safer, than the old village, wondering when the next cyclone will whip up the Pacific.

But Botu is unequivocal about the causes for the loss of his first homes when I ask him on the beach.

“Climate change,” he replies. “Sea level rise, floods, caused this.”

Sea levels have risen about 20 cm since 1900, the fastest rate in the past 3,000 years

The rising sea level is a worldwide problem

Fiji is one of many places I’ve visited in recent years trying to understand how melting ice is transforming lives. For my book “The Great Melt”, I’ve been from Panama to Peru, the Netherlands to Florida.

Among other places, I met the Guna indigenous people on a tiny, overcrowded Caribbean island off Panama who were building new homes with government support on the mainland, in a process mired by delays.

One man said he had even seen sardines swimming in his home during storm surges.

Ginela Salazar, a primary school teacher, expressed a common refrain: “we have to move for the sake of the children”.

boat and icebergs

I’ve also been to Antarctica with scientists, puzzling over how ice sheets will slide downhill in a warming world, especially as less cold water licks at the underside of the ice where it meets the Southern Ocean.

Around the world, drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are the main way to slow the accelerating rise in sea levels.

It can still be done, but governments are dragging their feet.

If emissions keep rising, however, seas could rise a metre or more by 2100, well within the lifetimes of many children living today

We need to take drastic action before it’s too late

We’re at a crossroads – in the best case of a shift to greener lifestyles, including a successful COP26, we may be able to limit global sea level rise to about 30cm this century.

If emissions keep rising, however, seas could rise a metre or more by 2100, well within the lifetimes of many children living today.

So far, current pledges by many governments are far too weak to meet goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit rising temperatures to “well below” two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, while “pursuing efforts” for 1.5C. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said we’re on a “catastrophic pathway” towards 2.7 degrees by the end of the century.

And rich governments need to meet a pledge made in 2009 to mobilise $100 million a year by 2020 to help developing nations cope with global warming, and raise ever more cash in the 2020s.

Huts on a hillside in Fiji - a village relocated because of rising sea levels

New Vunidogoloa is out of harm's way

That will help in the inevitable work to relocate more communities inland.

Already in addition to Fiji, communities in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea have had to move to higher ground. Fiji has a programme to relocate more than 40 communities from the shoreline.

For many vulnerable communities, sea level rise is often the final straw on top of other factors such as more powerful storms, changing sea currents, natural erosion or subsidence.

Vunidogoloa, for instance, is at the mouth of a meandering river that eats away at the shore at the end of a bay exposed to Pacific cyclones.

And people have been moving inland for centuries because of natural erosion, from parts of the east coast of England to the Chesapeake Bay in the United States.

But the problems are abruptly getting worse - sea levels have risen about 20 cm since 1900, the fastest rate in the past 3,000 years, according to a report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August.

And the rate is accelerating – the current pace is 37cm a century – as the melt spreads to the massive ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland.

Panama coastline with beach and palm trees

Ice melt is accelerating and threatening coastal and island communities

Why COP26 needs to listen

The best way to keep the ice bottled up is sharp reductions in greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels – among other things, that will mean phasing out coal power in favour of wind and solar energy, shifting to electric cars, and less meat-heavy diets.

A graph in the IPCC report with scenarios for sea-level rise by 2300 shows a best case of about 50 cm, with deep cuts in emissions, and a worst likely case of up to almost 7 metres.

That would be taller than a giraffe, or many two-storey homes, and inundate low-lying island nations, tracts of Bangladesh and Florida, and mean that coastal cities from Sydney to London would have to be behind huge walls.

Most of the people who can’t afford sea walls live in places like Fiji or Panama.

COP26 must listen to them.

Alister Doyle is an environmental journalist. His book “The Great Melt” was published by Flint Books on October 21.

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