24 March, 2010, Lux Fatimathas
Rising Seas and Sinking Lands
If your house were about to flood, which precious items would you try to save? Photos, home movies, family heirlooms? What if your local district was about to flood, what then? Or worse yet, your entire country? I imagine the latter prospect is one most of us do not have to deal with, but there are those unlucky few who have had to ask themselves that very question. The sinking lands – a list of sovereign states, coastlines and islands that are facing the possibility of the ocean swallowing them up. Sounds like the start of a good fairytale or the end of a rather awful one! [frax09alpha]
One of the unfortunate characters in this very real tale is the Maldives. The Maldives are made of up 26 atolls – small islands of coral encircling a lagoon. It is the lowest country on the planet and at its peak only reaches 2.3 meters above sea level. Unsurprisingly this collection of islets is under constant threat of submersion. Mean sea level measurements (MSL) taken across the globe have shown a steady increase in sea levels, with a rise of approximately 3mm per year over the course of the recent decade (1993-2003) (Bindoff et al 2007, IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007). A three millimeter rise in the water levels of your bath tub hardly seems noticeable, let alone across the scale of the entire planet. However it is these unceasing, incremental rises that have prompted the Maldive Government to begin planning resettlement initiatives.
The rise in sea levels looks set to continue, with the UN Climate Change Panel predicting a 25-58cm rise by 2100. This forecast sets a rather bleak future for the Maldives. The Indian Ocean is already visibly eroding the coastlines of this tourist hotspot. This is in addition to the damage caused by the 2004 tsunami, which has left the local cartographers facing an unenviable task! President Mohamed Nasheed faces the even more daunting task of raising funds to relocate potential ‘climate change refugees’ – a new but unfortunately growing breed of refugees, which in this instance refers to the children and grandchildren of a 400,000 strong populous. The relocation of such a vast number of people relies on the purchase of land in neighbouring countries, which all hinges on what President Nasheed calls the “sovereign wealth fund”. It is hoped that this fund will be predominantly generated from tourist revenue.
A similar story is playing out in the Polynesian islands of Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands. It is one of the least populated sovereign states in the world, with roughly 12,000 people spread out across its nine atolls and reef islands. Tuvalu was probably best known globally for its Internet domain address “.tv”, which was famously leased out to the American based company Idealab. In recent years however Tuvalu has hit the headlines for altogether more grim reasons. Its low lying landscapes have made it one of the most vulnerable regions to land loss, should sea levels in this area rise. This has placed Tuvalu in the spotlight at climate change summits, such as that held in Copenhagen at the end of last year. Political controversy has surrounded Tuvalus predicament, with threats from the Tuvaluan government to sue Australia and America; countries it deemed responsible for its current predicament due to their contributions to global warming.
It is not only remote islands that are at the mercy of the seas. The ever rising waters are impacting the development of residential areas in countries as far apart as Australia and England. Plans to build a coastal residential development were rejected in Victoria, South Australia due to concerns over storm surges, erosion and future rises in sea levels. Existing homes on the Isle of Wight, part of the United Kingdom, are only able to avoid such potential damage due to the presence of flood defences. It is now clear that these defences will need to be maintained in the long-term. Such flood barrier devices are becoming an ever present feature of several coastal regions along the length and breadth of the UK. Future government investments will therefore have to reflect this ever-growing need.
The frequency with which climate change is mentioned in both the global political arena and in local forums, underscores an increasing anxiety over our ability to tackle this problem. With all the media attention, think tanks, committees and political discussion, shouldn’t we be feeling better prepared and more at ease by now? Last year climate change was once again receiving worldwide press attention. These latest discussions, held in Denmark, resulted in the production of The Copenhagen Accord. This non-binding agreement was hailed by the American administration as the first step towards implementing a legally-binding document for the deceleration of climate change.
The Accord aims to prevent a 2°C rise in the global temperature from coming about by 2020 – such a rise in temperature is accepted as a dangerous climatic change. This document is indeed a step in the right direction and has brought on-side both America and China – countries noticeably absent from the Kyoto agreement, but belonging to that ignoble fraternity of the biggest global polluters. It is not however all good news, with strong criticism from several European countries regarding the terms of the Accord, which are said to be too weak to make a significant impact. Add to this the fact that the agreement is not legally binding and I must admit that the fight against climate change is looking somewhat half-hearted. One can only hope that the Copenhagen Accord truly is a stepping stone to the next Kyoto agreement and that this step is taken swiftly.
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