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Climate change and migration in the Pacific Islands

It is no longer a question of addressing if climate change is affecting the world we are living in, but it is focusing on, what is going on, and how we are to alleviate the unfolding impacts around us. One of the area’s most at risk from environmental degradation is small island states, such as those in the Pacific. Some of these islands will face gradual changes in land, adverse disasters, and some are at risk of totally disappearing. How people are to adapt to these changes will be a matter of global security and examining the choice of migration should be considered.

The link between climate change and migration

The migration of populations due to climate-driven effects is not new – history shows that people have crossed borders and lands due to droughts, cooling, and food scarcity. However, what makes this period of history different is that climate change is being generated by humans with the emissions of greenhouse gasses causing environmental pressures. Predictions are underway to calculate the number of people that will migrate in response to climate change effects, and they vary widely from tens of millions, to 250 million people by 2050. Climate change is affecting sea levels as well as making natural disasters more severe – these are contributing factors to why people decide to migrate.

Of course, what is important to remember is that climate change alone cannot cause populations to move around – there are important social and economic factors to also understand. Changes can be sudden-onset, such as disasters, but slow-onset environmental degradation has social changes working alongside them at a fast rate, and as a result climate change is just one push factor to consider. Once environmental changes affect living and working environments, the option to migrate becomes a possible reality. Factors which contribute to these decisions include: physical barriers, mortality rates, availability of natural resources impacting livelihoods, employment opportunities and present institutional constraints, and the effects on social networks. In any case, migration is only one option, adaptation is another. What needs to be considered is not only if a population will migrate or not – but the understanding of what a population deems to be the risks associated with climate change, and how they weigh up the pros and cons of deciding whether to stay or leave.

The significance of the Pacific

The Pacific region is one of the world’s most disaster-prone areas due to the small size of islands, their remoteness, and fragile biodiversity. Many islands have low elevation of land, and are exposed to changing ocean weather patterns, making the Pacific region most likely to feel the effects of climate change before other areas. It is, unfortunately, one of the front running regions which deals with climate change effects, already experiencing displacement and utilising migration as a solution. Over the last two decades, the number of casualties caused by weather-related disasters in the Pacific region has risen by over 21% and will only continue to grow. Exposed to a number of risks, the impact of a disaster can affect the whole economic situation of a country, as well as transforming the physical environment itself, making development a long and arduous process. The countries in the Pacific are significant to consider because some are facing economic losses from a single disaster event that would exceed their annual GDP. There are also many areas in the region which are poor and at a higher risk of climate-related effects with little or no means of protection or risk mitigation.

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