MELBOURNE, Australia | Rising sea levels blamed on climate change are taking a toll on island nations in the South Pacific, with the world’s first climate refugees beginning a migration that is likely to continue for decades to come.
Inhabitants of parts of New Guinea and Tuvalu have already been forced to moved from low-lying areas.
New Zealand has agreed to accept migrants from Tuvalu, which experts think will be completely submerged by the middle of the century. Canada is funding the relocation of residents from parts of Vanuatu affected by global warming.
Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization warned in a recent report that the Pacific region is particularly vulnerable.
It warned of coastal communities already being inundated by rising seas, the loss of wetlands and coral bleaching, as well as an increase in disease and heat-related mortality resulting from climate change.
“Communities all over the Pacific are alarmed at coastal erosion and the advancing sea levels,” said Diane McFadzien, the South Pacifics regional climate change coordinator with the World Wildlife Fund. “We are already seeing signs of whole villages having to relocate … or important cultural sites such as burial grounds in Fiji being eroded.”
The Pacific islands comprise 22 nations with 7 million residents.
The rising sea and eroding beaches caused the recent forced displacement of the people of the Carteret Islands, about 70 miles northeast of Papua New Guinea. The islands’ 2,500 residents are moving to one of Papua New Guineas larger towns, Bougainville.
Extreme weather has increased in frequency and ferocity in recent years in Papua New Guinea. A flood in Oro Province in November 2007 killed 70 people and destroyed nearly all roads and bridges.
In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, a chain of 1,200 islands and coral atolls that sits about 6 feet above sea level, has long been a favorite honeymoon destination. Estimates released at the Copenhagen International Climate Congress in February say the sea could swallow most or all of the islands by the year 2100.
The worlds first climate refugees are thought to be the 500,000 inhabitants of Bhola Island in Bangladesh, who were left homeless after half of the island became permanently flooded in 2005.
Inhabitants of another island in the Bay of Bengal, Kutubdia, are now homeless after the island lost almost 4 square miles of land, shrinking it from its original size of almost 10 square miles, according to the Equity and Justice Working Group, an environmental organization.
The group recently said that some 30 million people in 19 of 64 districts along the southern coastline of Bangladesh have already been exposed to extreme weather, rising sea levels and river erosion.
Equity’s estimates are more dire than the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which estimates that 22 million people in Bangladesh will be forced from their homes by 2050 because of climate change.
A migration of such magnitude can have real-life implications for national budgets, international law and immigration policies.
India is building a fence along its porous 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh, hoping to stop the flow of migrants, many displaced by changes in climate.
Semantics has become part of the equation, as politicians debate what to call victims of global warming - refugees or migrants. Governments tend to prefer migrants, while international aid and environmental groups opt for refugees.
The debate over the definitions has real consequences, said Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
“This distinction between the obligation owed toward a refugee in contrast to other people who are in trouble - even desperate trouble - is why the terminology matters,” she said.
It will be difficult for wealthier countries with lots of space to open their doors to people running from climate change, Ms. Newland added.
“I think it is much more likely that, if the rich do anything, they will try to work through governments and international organizations to meet their humanitarian needs in the short run and to help people adapt to the changed circumstances in the long run,” she said. “If climate change is very rapid and extreme, these efforts are likely to be far from adequate.”
Activist groups argue that wealthy countries have a moral obligation because they produce the most greenhouse-gas emissions, which most, but not all, scientists say causes global warming.
Pacific island nations contribute less than half a percent of global emissions, yet they are three times more vulnerable to climate change than other countries, according to the IPCC.