When Winnie Kiap was a girl on Baluan, an island of 2,000 inhabitants some 300 kilometres north-east of mainland Papua New Guinea, she used to play in an abandoned building left behind by German colonisers on another small nearby island.
“Now when I return, I am sad because that island is just not there anymore. It is completely submerged, all you can see is a dead palm tree trunk,” said Kiap, who is Papua New Guinea’s high commissioner to the UK. It is the same story for numerous beaches where she used to swim or collect birds eggs.
“My childhood has been stolen from me. How can I define that I was young once, that I lived there, when everything has vanished? I am afraid to go back to where I grew up because so much is gone.”
As climate change accelerates, melting glaciers and ice caps mean sea levels are rising at a record rate. Between 1901 and 1990, the average rise was 1.4 millimetres per year, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; between 1993 and 2015 it had more than doubled to 3.6mm.
The rise in sea level does not simply have an emotional impact: it is threatening the very existence of countries like Tuvalu (highest point 4.6 metres), the Maldives (highest point 5.1m) and the Marshall Islands (highest point 10m). A global temperature rise of more than 1.5°C will force many islanders to abandon their homes. Tuvalu has already bought more than 5,000 acres of land from Fiji, while some 30,000 Marshallese have migrated to the US (compared with 50,000 that remain on the islands).
Sea level rises can also lead to exceptionally high “king tides” that inundate strips of land, leave it full of salt and make it useless for farming. Meanwhile, fish stocks are threatened by global sea surface temperatures rising by an average of 0.72°C in a century. Kiap said fish are migrating from coastal waters by her island, and plans are now provisionally in place for people to move to the mainland.
The financial impact of climate change on island nations is already devastating. The Maldives is spending 30 per cent of its national budget on climate adaptation measures, the country’s former president Mohamed Nasheed told the New Statesman. “This affects the amount of money we have for education, for health, for transport,” he said.
“We are living on a planet heated by 1.2 degrees [°C]. The winds are stronger, the rains are more, the summer is longer, the waves are higher. We are losing a way of life, we are losing a community, and we are losing a country,” added Nasheed, who was at Cop26 representing the Climate Vulnerable Forum and working with the B Team and We Mean Business.
The impact of more extreme weather has been felt acutely in Fiji this year. “In the last five years, we have had 13 cyclones, three of which have been the most intense recorded in our history,” said Satyendra Prasad, the country’s permanent ambassador to the UN.
“One event alone, Cyclone Winston, wiped out 30 per cent of the Fijian economy. If this were transposed on to the UK economy, it would be worth £900bn. And we are supposed to be able to withstand that type of shock?”
The increasingly dire financial situation faced by many islands comes as the world’s wealthy nations missed the 2020 deadline to provide $100bn in annual climate finance, and are now saying it will arrive three years later in 2023.
This money relates to all money spent on climate action and adaptation to the impacts of extreme weather. It sounds like a lot, but does not actually translate into very much. Around three-quarters of the world’s population of 7.7 billion lives in the Global South – $100bn is the equivalent of $13 a person a year.
The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is urging rich nations to wake up to this problem and provide a more solid $1trn a year. Most of the world’s developing countries have backed a demand for wealthy nations to provide at least $1.3trn in climate finance annually by 2030.
At the UN General Assembly in September, the Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama called on rich countries to provide $750bn a year by 2025 – a figure reached after numerous discussions with “the World Bank, the Pacific Islands Forum” and other organisations, said Prasad.
“We are hurting because $100bn is more an article of faith,” Prasad added. “But this year, we experienced the total rain experienced in London last year in just two hours. We have to rebuild so many roads, provide emergency supplies. It is a full societal and economic transformation that is needed to adapt. Only with a $750bn figure will we begin to be able to do that.”
In 2009, Nasheed, a marine biologist and then Maldivian president, famously held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, “to impress the gravity of the issue” in the Maldives. Twelve years later, he said he is more optimistic, “only because you have now had the bad weather on you yourself”, with Europe experiencing major floods and record wildfires this year. “It is very sad, because when I am optimistic it means that bad things are happening,” he said.
For Kiap, from a country where 90 per cent of inhabitants still live traditionally from the land, part of the tragedy lies in the fact the greatest impacts of climate change are being felt by those who have done very little, if anything, to contribute to the problem.
“There is still a perception in my country that the British [Papua New Guinea’s former colonisers] are civilised people. But things are changing because of the ways civilised countries are behaving. So sometimes I think, what does civilisation actually mean?”