About Those Non-Disappearing Pacific Islands

marshall-islandOnce a year or so, journalists from major news outlets travel to the Marshall Islands, a remote chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, to report in panicked tones that the island nation is vanishing because of climate change. Their dispatches are often filled with raw emotion and suggest that residents are fleeing atolls swiftly sinking into the sea.

Yet new research shows that this is not the entire—or even an accurate—picture. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean that global warming isn’t real, or that world leaders and scientists shouldn’t tackle the adverse effects of climate change, but hype and exaggeration serve no one.

Using historic aerial photographs and high-resolution satellite imagery, Auckland University scientists Murray Ford and Paul Kench recently analyzed shoreline changes on six atolls and two mid-ocean reef islands in the Marshall Islands. Their peer-reviewed study, published in the September 2015 issue of Anthropocene, revealed that since the middle of the 20th century the total land area of the islands has actually grown.

How is that possible? It seems self-evident that rising sea levels will reduce land area. However, there is a process of accretion, where coral broken up by the waves washes up on these low-lying islands as sand, counteracting the reduction in land mass. Research shows that this process is overpowering the erosion from sea-level rise, leading to net land-area gain.

This is not only true for the Marshall Islands. The researchers write that within the “recently emerging body of shoreline change studies on atoll islands there is little evidence of widespread reef island erosion. To the contrary, several studies have documented noteworthy shoreline progradation [growth] and positional changes of islands since the mid-20th century, resulting in a net increase in island area.” The most famous of these studies, published in 2010 by Paul Kench and Arthur Webb of the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji, showed that of 27 Pacific islands, 14% lost area. Yet 43% gained area, with the rest remaining stable.

Representatives from the Marshall Islands have been vocal about the need for strong global action on climate. President Hilda Heine has told reporters that longtime residents are leaving the Marshall Islands because climate change is threatening the nation’s existence. It’s true that approximately one-third of the population has relocated to the U.S.—but for reasons more mundane than climate change.

Some 52.7% of the Marshall Islands population lives below the poverty line, according to the Asian Development Bank. Only 39.3% of the population age 15 years and above is employed. In its 2015 human-rights report on the island nation, the U.S. State Department said that significant problems include “chronic government corruption, and chronic domestic violence,” along with “child abuse, sex trafficking, and lack of legal provisions protecting worker’s rights.” Marshallese citizens also have an easy immigration pathway to America and can live, work and study in the U.S. without a visa.

It is understandable why Marshall Island leaders might prefer to talk about global warming. But blaming today’s emigration on rising seas does a disservice to all.

Telling viewers in the U.S. starkly that they’re “making this island disappear,” as a report from CNN’s John Sutter did in June 2015, makes for good, blame-laden television. But this reductionist, fact-averse rhetoric contributes to the idea that climate-change discussion should be a two-sided, cartoonish fight between those who say it is not real and those who say it is the worst problem facing humanity.

Even more insidiously, doom-mongering makes us panic and seize upon the wrong responses to global warming. At a cost of between $1 trillion and $2 trillion annually, the Paris climate agreement, recently ratified by China, is likely to be history’s most expensive treaty. It will slow the world’s economic growth to force a shift to inefficient green energy sources.

This will achieve almost nothing. My peer-reviewed research, published last November in the journal Global Policy, shows that even if every nation were to fulfill all their carbon-cutting promises by 2030 and stick to them all the way through the century—at a cost of more than $100 trillion in lost GDP—global temperature rise would be reduced by a tiny 0.3°F (0.17°C).

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