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SAMI 25th blog series: 1990 – Foresight, small nations, and policy leadership

December 11, 2014

Pacific island nations and the ‘slow tsunami’ of sea level rise

In 1989 the Pacific Islands Monthly featured a dramatic black cover which in bold type proclaimed, “Say Goodbye to Kiribati, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and Tokelau” (Connell and Roy, 1989). This was an early signal that the Pacific island nations took seriously initial scientific analyses suggesting that human activities might transform the world’s climate. Through the late 80s, the Hawai’i Research Center for Futures Studies (HRCFS) had been tracking the emerging scientific consensus with regard to human-generated climate change and sea-level rise. Dr. Jim Dator, Director of HRCFS, rather famously asked the Hawai’i State Legislature if they were prepared for Waikiki to be under the sea.

In conjunction with Dr Mike Hamnett of the University of Hawai’i’s Center for Development Studies – a research organisation focussed on policy research for the Pacific Basin – the HRCFS in the early 90s engaged in a series of research projects, policy workshops, and training seminars for Pacific Island leaders. These activities engaged the leaders and policy-makers in identifying, adapting to, and planning to thrive within long-term environmental change.

For the Marshall Islands, one notable futures research and environmental policy project included an early form of ‘experiential futures’ exercise.   Dr Chris Jones of the HRCFS created an immersive multi-media presentation illustrating what different levels of sea-level rise would look like using projected slides of familiar scenes and infrastructure on Majuro. The project team engaged elected leaders, civil servants, community leaders, and local high school students in exploring how their lifestyles and careers might be different across a range of environmental, technological, economic, and political changes.

Throughout all these activities – from the workshop with Marshallese high school students to the symposium of assembled Pacific Island heads of state – highlighted a stark truth: profligate resource use by the global economic superpowers would over time erase, via sea level rise, more than one Pacific Island micro-state.  Beginning in the 1990s, Pacific Island leaders raised the issue again and again in international fora. Perhaps the most dramatic voicing of island concerns occurred in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, with Tuvalu proposing deeper, legally binding emissions cuts in a protocol that was rejected by larger nations.

With little headway in international amelioration, the Pacific Island states have by necessity become early adopters in extreme adaptation schemes for sea-level rise. They are already feeling the effects of the climate change many leaders elsewhere deny. At the Pacific Islands Summit in 2013, Christopher Loeak, President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, noted:

“The Pacific is fighting for its survival. Climate change has already arrived…”

Many other small island Pacific “microstates”, including the Solomons, Tuvaluand the Carteret Islands, have all suffered rapid erosion, higher tides, storm surges and inundation of wells with seawater. Earlier this year Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, predicted his country was likely to become uninhabitable between 30 and 60 years from now because of inundation and contamination of its freshwater supplies. (The Guardian,

As a consequence, many Pacific micro-state leaders are creating contingency plans that may redefine the modern definition of the nation state. Tong of Kiribati has opened negotiations to buy land from Fiji to relocate i-Kiribati en masse, and has also explored the options of building floating islands to house its citizens. (The Telegraph,   But in the meantime, the leaders of Kiribati are focussing on education and upskilling of citizens, particularly youth, to make them more attractive as immigrants in other countries, and to prepare them for the possibility of life as eternal expats.

Written by Wendy Schultz.

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