Small island nations are on the frontlines of climate change, and for some, retreat is not an option

Small island developing states, many of which are at or below sea level, are at particular risk for the most extreme effects of climate change. As seas rise and storms get stronger, will we be able to improve resilience in these areas, or will their citizens be forced to leave?

Resilience vs. Retreat in the Face of Climate Change

If the world doesn’t get its act together soon, we will face rising seas, heat and drought, and stronger storms. No nation will be able to escape the consequences of climate change, but Small Island Developing States (SIDS)—such as the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, and the Bahamas—will be some of the hardest hit.

“Many of these countries are located at or entirely below sea level,” explained Lisa Dale, a lecturer in Columbia University’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, during an event on Thursday night. SIDS are “on the frontlines” of how this planet will navigate the extreme impacts of climate change, she added.

The United Nations estimates that 250 million people will be displaced by climate change by 2050. Where those people will go remains a thorny issue, as do questions about who is responsible. The U.S. and China have emitted the most greenhouse gases over time—what role should they play in helping at-risk nations? These were just some of the questions addressed in Thursday’s event on climate change and SIDS, hosted by the Earth Institute’s Climate Adaptation Initiative and moderated by Dale.

Climate change will force an enormous number of people to move around the world, said Cassie Flynn, a climate change adviser with the United Nations. “It’s an enormous amount of people who have jobs and families and communities and ways of life that they very much cherish. What does it mean to change that? And what does it mean to support them financially and socially and environmentally?”

“You wake up and you think, ‘Oh my God, I could actually become a climate refugee. Not 100 years from now … but today.’”

‘Retreat’ is a word that frequently comes up in conversations like this—the idea being that people will need to move out of the lands that are most at risk. But it’s a word that doesn’t sit well with the people who actually live in these areas, said Tearinaki Tanielu. He’s an environmental scientist and policy researcher, and a native of Kiribati a chain of islands and atolls in the Pacific Ocean. Tanielu represents Kiribati in the U.N.’s Alliance of Small Island States.

“Having people taken away from their islands is something that is quite unfair,” says Tanielu. Kiribati hasn’t generated the emissions that threaten to drown its chain of islands and atolls—so why should it suffer the consequences?

Climate Migrants Will Soon Shift Populations of Many Countries

A new report says that millions of people may soon be forced to migrate within their own countries due to climate change.

This report, which focuses on three regions—Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America that together represent 55 percent of the developing world’s population—finds that climate change will push tens of millions of people to migrate within their countries by 2050. It projects that without concrete climate and development action, just over 143 million people—or around 2.8 percent of the population of these three regions—could be forced to move within their own countries to escape the slow-onset impacts of climate change. They will migrate from less viable areas with lower water availability and crop productivity and from areas affected by rising sea level and storm surges. The poorest and most climate vulnerable areas will be hardest hit. These trends, alongside the emergence of “hotspots” of climate in- and out-migration, will have major implications for climate-sensitive sectors and for the adequacy of infrastructure and social support systems. The report finds that internal climate migration will likely rise through 2050 and then accelerate unless there are significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and robust development action.  Download The Full Report

Not Just a Future Threat

For many of us, climate change still seems like a vague threat, happening sometime in the future in some distant land. But small island nations are already feeling the brunt of the changing climate.

In 2017, the Virgin Islands were hit by 200 mph wind gusts from Hurricane Irma, damaging 90 percent of buildings, destroying 30 percent of schools, and causing the worst floods in the islands’ history. It took six months to fully restore power. “The aftermath literally resembled a bombing,” said Angela Burnett, the climate change officer for the Virgin Islands’ Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour.

Another category 5 hurricane, Maria, hit a few weeks later, and a category 4 hurricane threatened to strike around the same time. “You wake up after that trio of events, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh my God, I could actually become a climate refugee,’” said Burnett. “Not 100 years from now … but today.”

Burnett cited some disturbing statistics. In 1990, scientists estimated that a storm as strong as Irma would only hit once every 800 years. By 2017, the odds had shot up to 1 in 180. And if we don’t dramatically curb our carbon emissions, by 2090, it could be 1 in 60.

“This should alarm everybody, not just persons who live in hurricane-prone regions,” she said. “Climate change is expressed differently in different places. For us it’s hurricanes, sea level rise. For you it might be more extreme nor’easters.”

Resilience Versus Retreat

The Virgin Islands are mountainous, so it is theoretically possible for people to escape the rising seas by moving inland. But “it might not be a practical option to just think that you’re going to pick up entire communities with large populations and put them somewhere else,” said Burnett. In some cases there’s nowhere for the buildings to go. It’s also very expensive to build in the mountains, she said, and it creates other challenges like erosion and sedimentation.

The real opportunities for retreat come in times of complete devastation, said Burnett. Since many structures had to be rebuilt after Irma, it would have been the perfect time to move to safer areas and build in more resilient ways. “However, disasters are also the most difficult time to think about retreat,” she said. “Because in a situation where people have lost everything, the economy is shut down, people are just thinking about how to recover quickest, in the most affordable fashion.”

Burnett called for more “blue sky planning”—meaning detailed planning done before a disaster strikes, so that retreat and resilience measures can be incorporated quickly and easily in the aftermath.

But Tanielu said he didn’t want to talk about the word ‘retreat.’ For Kiribati, a nation built on narrow atolls, retreat isn’t a real option.

“Where can you retreat?” asked Tanielu. “If you move forward, you run into the beach. If you move backward, you run into the other beach.” For his country, retreat means abandoning the land where his ancestors lived for thousands of years, and leaving behind the graves of his parents and grandparents.

“If you move forward, you run into the beach. If you move backward, you run into the other beach.”

Instead, Kiribati is focused on cutting carbon emissions and finding innovative ways to continuing living on the islands. They are looking into building resilience and fortifying the least at-risk areas by building up the land in the area around the capital, for instance, although those projects can be very expensive. To Tanielu, retreat should only be considered after all the other options are exhausted.

“If you think about a country as a family unit, what father would want to plan for his children to go away from the house they love?” he said. “If they are going to be evicted, I think that father would do all he can to fight the evictors so that he can continue to stay with his family in the home that they love.”


Climate Change Will Displace Millions of People. Where Will They Go?

Barbuda, the sister island of Antigua, is a small, low-lying Caribbean island. Most of its 1,700 residents lived in Codrington, the central location for stores and schools. The town is also the location for the Barbuda Research Complex, where I attended sustainability field school in 2014.

What makes this island so unique? The beauty of the natural beaches untouched by tourism developments, the rich vegetation, diverse wildlife, fascinating archaeological sites and the people of Barbuda. During my three-week stay there, it became clear to me that Barbudans were a proud, happy and resilient people. Their community identity is heavily steeped in their food culture, which forges their intricate relationship with the environment. This entry in my field journal captures their spirit: “I admire how Barbudans respect and use all their resources on the island and understand their environment.” Their livelihoods and culture center on fishing, hunting and farming. However, climate change has altered the island’s food system and therefore their livelihoods. Droughts and rising seas that encroach on freshwater supplies are causing crop yields to decline, and Barbudans must increasingly rely on expensive imported foods.

Hurricane Irma hit Barbuda in September and decimated most of the island – 95 percent of the buildings and infrastructure were destroyed. One person died and countless animals were killed by debris or separated from their owners. For the first time in 300 years, the island was rendered uninhabitable. All the residents were evacuated and temporarily relocated to Antigua, where they still remain today. Barbudans are eager to return to the island, as they have a strong sense of place-based identity. Rebuilding efforts are currently under way, though funds are sorely lacking and a bitter dispute over land rights has ensued. This story illustrates tragedy for the islanders, who are at the front lines of climate change.

And they’re not the only ones. This year, hurricane season hit U.S. coastal communities and islands in the Caribbean at an alarming scale, causing massive infrastructure damage and loss of life. Meanwhile, wildfires are wreaking havoc in Southern California. These natural disasters are influenced by a warming climate. As the sea level rises and average temperatures continue to increase, these disasters will become more frequent and intense. Climate change is expected to displace millions of people in the coming decades, and countries will increasingly have to grapple with this issue.

When disaster strikes, what happens to the communities in harm’s way? Where do the displaced people stay? Will they be able to return to their homes in areas that climate change may have rendered unlivable? Experts from Columbia University discussed these challenges and more at a recent event hosted by the Earth Institute.

Climate scientist Radley Horton from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory moderated the panel. The speakers included: Lisa Dale, a lecturer in the undergraduate program in Sustainable Development; Alex de Sherbinin, a geographer at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network; and Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. The event was part of the Earth Institute’s Climate Adaptation Initiative—a three-year project to enhance Columbia’s impact on sustainability problem-solving. One of the themes of this initiative is climate-induced retreat to safer areas.

Where Will Climate Migrants Go?

Some experts estimate that climate change could force between 150 and 300 million people to find a new place to live by the middle of this century, though there is considerable uncertainty about the amount. Finding suitable locations to house them will be a significant impediment. As Michael Gerrard explained, “part of the problem is scale. If we’re talking about millions of people having to be on the move, it just doesn’t work.”

In the U.S., there are very few habitable places that aren’t already occupied by homes, businesses, or agriculture, or preserved as park lands or forests. Meanwhile, rural areas would provide few opportunities for migrants to find employment and rebuild their lives.

Instead, Gerrard suggested moving people from high-risk areas to cities whose populations are shrinking, such as Detroit, Michigan. He sees cities’ potential for vertical development, energy-efficient buildings, and public transportation as a way to sustainably host climate migrants.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a protected refugee as someone who leaves his or her home country due to racial, religious, or social persecution, or reasonable fear of such persecution. These refugees have the right to seek asylum and protection from participating members of the United Nations (though these countries are not obligated to take them in). However, people displaced by climate change do not fit this definition. At the international level, there is no legal mechanism in place to protect climate migrants’ rights and to ensure assistance from other countries. In terms of cross-border migration, Gerrard said, “there is no international law that compels a country to take in people from other countries; it’s wholly voluntary.”

When Should Climate Migration Happen?

Once a major disaster strikes with little or no warning, victims can become ‘distressed’ migrants—people who have lost their homes and are forced to flee with nothing but the shirts on their backs.

A better scenario would be to resettle people outside of at-risk areas before disaster strikes. That way, people would have some degree of choice in where to go and what to bring.

However, Alex de Sherbinin pointed out that the U.S. government has no policy mechanism designed to relocate people before a disaster strikes.

Not only does relocating people cost money, but governments miss out on tax revenues if land is left empty. “This is why there is an impetus to build up and grow in vulnerable coastal zones,” said de Sherbinin.

But it’s not impossible to be proactive about climate migration. China has ‘ecological migration,’ a relocation program designed to anticipate future disasters. The government has resettled large communities from rural areas damaged by climate change, industrialization, and other problems. The program is partly an effort to reduce dust storms produced by agriculture. It works out economically because it was no longer financially tenable for the Chinese government to support these communities in rural areas.

Where Would the Money Come From?

Michael Gerrard views carbon pricing as an ideal solution to funding climate relocation. Displacement by sea level rise, hurricanes, and wildfires is, as he put it, “a negative externality of burning fossil fuels, so if you were to build that into the price and pay for some of this through a price on carbon, you would generate a whole lot of money that way.” In this scenario, the money paid by carbon emitters could help fund climate relocation while creating a major economic incentive to move away from fossil fuels.

The panelists agreed that countries also need to be forward-looking. In order to avoid the US’ reactive disaster planning, we must plan ahead for future damage and associated costs from natural disasters when thinking about how to manage the retreat from at-risk areas.

Unfortunately, U.S. disaster response is typically reactive instead of proactive. Lisa Dale explained how, much like flood planning, the federal fire budget is backward-looking. “The U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget is based on the last 10 years of fire costs,” she said, “so they are always estimating too low.” Meanwhile, the cost of suppressing fire has grown substantially, she added.

A more progressive approach would lead to better management of funds to add protective measures against climate-related catastrophes, build resilience, and in extreme cases relocate at-risk communities.

With a lack of finance, policy, and legal frameworks, managed retreat will be a huge challenge in the United States. So it is no wonder that developing nations are not receiving the financial and technical assistance they so desperately need to recover from disasters and to rebuild in a climate-resilient way. Gerrard pointed out that the U.S. is “one of the richest places on the planet and we’re struggling to come up with resources to fund it.”

Changing Climate, Changing Cultures

For climate relocation to work, governments need to care and commit to international responsibility and burden-sharing. However, in the current global political context of fear of terrorism, an increased refugee influx into Europe, and an overall rise of xenophobia, countries are more likely to opt for stricter policies on cross-border migration. Rex Tillerson announced on December 3 that the U.S. is pulling out of the Global Compact for Migration, arguing (falsely, in Gerrard’s view) that it was a threat to U.S. sovereignty.

“There is such an anti-immigrant fervor that it’s hard to imagine the U.S. in the short-term taking in large numbers of people,” Gerrard said.

According to Alex de Sherbinin, framing migration as a useful adaptation (and life- and cost-saving strategy), rather than a retreat, can encourage governments to take actions to support migration.

On the other hand, there is a human cost to any kind of permanent relocation: The threat of losing one’s cultural heritage, particularly in native communities on coastal areas and islands such as Barbuda. Many islanders have a deep attachment to their homeland, which is inextricably linked to their culture and traditions.

Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, is pushing for tourism development and land ownership to regenerate Barbuda’s economy and reduce the island’s reliance on Antigua. The Barbuda Land Act of 2007 formally recognized that citizens communally own Barbuda’s land—a practice dating back hundreds of years—and must consent to major developments. In its place, Browne proposes to institute a system in which Barbudans can buy their plots for $1, opening up the possibility of securing bank loans for reconstruction. Many people and representatives in the Barbuda Council are opposed to this new system, as it would threaten their culture and would potentially open up their island to foreign investment and development.

As Alex de Sherbinin noted, “rebuilding homes is one thing, but also rebuilding communities and allowing the tissue of community to reform requires funds to facilitate.”

There is a lot of work ahead of us to solve the climate migration issue, and as Michael Gerrard pointed out, “it’s really a question of trying to find sufficient humanity.”

Hope for the Future

Radley Horton, a climatologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, pointed out that scientists are starting to be able to say how much climate change has affected the probability of an extreme weather event. With these advances in attribution science, we may not be that far from being able to blame some portion of these events on the emissions from certain countries or industries. “Will it ever get to a point where someone could actually be forced to pay for the retreat or resilience? I don’t know,” he said, deferring to legal experts.

Burnett advised that if we want people and nations to reduce their carbon emissions, the first step is to “connect people in a personal way to the history of climate change… Because we only act on the things we care about, and we only care about the things that we feel personally connected to.” From her book, The Irma Diaries, she shared some true-life stories from Hurricane Irma survivors—harrowing accounts of people saying goodbye to their loved ones as they sheltered in bathtubs, and swimming through waves that as tall as two-story buildings.

Flynn said that stories like these, which represent the experience of climate change, are helping the world to see and feel its impacts. She added that SIDS represent part of the solution. “We are seeing immense leadership come out of some of the smallest countries in the world,” she said. “Many have pledged to go carbon-neutral, many are starting to experiment with financial mechanisms and insurance and infrastructure. We’re starting to see the people on the frontlines really lead the way.”

Tanielu reminded everyone that while places like Kiribati and the Virgin Islands are on the frontlines, “they are not the only ones in line…. Climate change is about people, and it’s about all people.”


Reference and Links

Sea Level Rise – Map Viewer

Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts

This map viewer illustrates the scale of potential coastal flooding after varying amounts of sea level rise. Users can simulate inundation associated with one to six feet of sea level rise at various scales along the contiguous United States coast, except for the Great Lakes.

The maps are produced using detailed elevation maps with local and regional tidal variability. They show the extent of inundation likely at high tide after various amounts of sea level rise.

Sea Level Rise Map Viewer   –    Map Viewer Homepage

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Climate

From supercomputers and state-of-the-art models to observations and outlooks, we provide data, tools, and information to help people understand and prepare for climate variability and change.

Climate website


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Oceans & Coasts

NOAA’s National Ocean Service is positioning America’s coastal communities for the future of Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding

Oceans & Coasts website


story sorce: Earth Institute, Columbia University

Groundswell : Preparing for Internal Climate Migration – Citation “Rigaud, Kanta Kumari; de Sherbinin, Alex; Jones, Bryan; Bergmann, Jonas; Clement, Viviane; Ober, Kayly; Schewe, Jacob; Adamo, Susana; McCusker, Brent; Heuser, Silke; Midgley, Amelia. 2018. Groundswell : Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.”

Climate Change Will Displace Millions of People. Where Will They Go, by Tiffany Challe is a communications associate at Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. 

Scroll to Top