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The Human Face of Climate Change

Publicado por Mike el 5/05/2016

What a ubiquitous subject. Almost obnoxious in its all-encompassing presence. And yet, most people, at least those of my acquaintance (sadly I must include myself) seem almost offended at the prospect or suggestion that their lifestyle should change. It’s all too easy to consign all this to the background of our minds, to simply think that it happens to other people. That it will ONLY happen to other people. Enter Tuvalu.

Tuvalu has been at the forefront of climate change for many years. It’s a group of nine islands (reef islands and coral atolls) roughly located between Hawaii and Australia, the capital (Funafuti) is approximately 1000 km north of Fiji. It has a population of around 11,000, one of the lowest GDPs of any country and a mean height of less than 2 metres. It’s this last fact that puts it at such extreme risk from climate change and could mean it would become one of the first places where the continued rise of sea levels would be felt at a large scale. It’s easy to be cavalier about sea rise from a distance away, and when your country has high altitude areas. This is not the case for the Pacific island nations.
The issues on Tuvalu (and many of the other Pacific islands) are complex and varied. There’s also less need to wonder what will happen, since there are observable changes right now. Increased flooding (which now occurs monthly), higher tides, eroding shorelines and increased salinity of the soil and ground water are just a few of the challenges the islanders are facing. Even planes often have trouble landing because the only runway on the island is flooded, something that didn’t happen before. Rainfall is also becoming more irregular, and cyclones are getting stronger. Traditionally, people have thought that coral islands and atolls would be somewhat immune to the effects of sea level change because the coral islands would themselves grow, as has happened in the past after storms and cyclones. However, the increased carbon dioxide in the water means that the coral might not be able to grow as before. In addition, sea level rise is only one of the problems that Tuvalu faces and, arguably, not even the most pressing one. For some, the increased salinity and stronger cyclones claim that place. When the tallest natural feature of an island is only about five metres tall, large waves are more than a nuisance.

Critics have stated that it’s all a hoax to ask for or demand foreign aid. Others point out that Tuvalu is not completely innocent; coastal engineering, overpopulation, environmental mismanagement and deforestation are contributing to their dangerous situation. And still others highlight the inaccuracies of past projections. Unfortunately, at this point, this is neither here nor there. It’s all but certain that Tuvalu is in serious trouble. How its people and culture will survive is yet to be seen.

Climate projections are incredibly complicated and convoluted. This means that scientists have to project and prepare for a variety of scenarios, some much more likely than others. This often leads people to assume that scientists are either divided on the subject of climate change itself, or nearly always wrong (since many of the scenarios will never happen, obviously). An example: the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) prepared 35 scenarios for the SRES (Special Report on Emission Scenarios), which looked at the projected rise of sea levels between 1990 and 2100. Climate, and our interactions and effect on it, is a hugely complex system, and one we have only recently begun to study. However, this does not mean that projections should be ignored or tossed out. They’re a fundamental tool to prepare us for the future. And they’ll only get better and more accurate as we learn from past mistakes, gather more data and can use more sophisticated hardware and software.

Still, the true scope of the problem is hard to understand from thousands of kilometres away. Kiribati, another island nation, planning ahead, has already bought land in Fiji, preparing for a possible relocation in the future. Consider, this is a government that thinks it’s likely that it will have to move its citizens. I wonder how people in Western European or North American countries would react to such a plan?

The truth is that the islanders are in trouble, even if we could truly start fighting climate change right now at a global level, it still might not save some of the islands. Climate change is one the great tests of our time. How we respond to it will determine whether future generations look back at us and group us with slavers and the worst excesses of the Romanov dynasty, or see people fit to be side by side in a future school history book with Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai.