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Double Whammy: Sudden and Slow-onset Disasters for Pacific Island States

Those involved in international climate policy often hear about the plight of Pacific Island states in the face of climate change (though, some argue, this has not been met with adequate attention by academic researchers). But in order to avoid becoming desensitized to the concerns of this part of the world, it is important to revisit and reprocess some of the serious dangers these nations face. A new synthesis report from the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, which follows a series of workshops last May, continues to shine a light on the problem, identifying the simple fact that these countries face the worst of both kinds of climate-exacerbated natural disasters: sudden-onset and slow-onset. As the report states:

“Sudden-onset disasters— such as cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and flooding—have been and remain frequent, feared and deadly. The number of sudden-onset disasters has increased significantly since 1950, the severity of hurricane-strength cyclones has grown, and the total population affected per event has been increasing—the result of population growth, rapid urbanization and environmental degradation.

But the Pacific region does not only experience the effects of sudden-onset disasters, but also slow-onset disasters—such as droughts, riverine erosion, coral bleaching and increasing salination of its soils and water, often aggravated by human-caused environmental damage and industrial development. Climate change is likely to exacerbate both sudden-onset and slow-onset disasters. This is why Pacific Island countries are justifiably regarded as being on the “front line” of the effects of climate change, and therefore in need of international attention and assistance.”

However, the authors wisely caution readers and practitioners not to treat the Pacific Island nations as mere aid receptacles (or an “aid-recipient area”) but rather, as a key “knowledge-supplying area” – “i.e. an area that is able to offer information and valuable knowledge germane to the climate change concerns of the international community worldwide.”

In summary, we need to pay attention to the Pacific Island nations – both because of the scale and severity of natural disaster challenges they face, and because of the relevance of their experience in helping the international community prepare for the risks of climate change.


  1. Jennifer says:

    Excellent work, excellent article. Let me write a couple of words on social & legal context

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.

  2. […] warm and sea levels rise, new land and seabed claims arise between nations, coastlines and some entire nations are threatened, fish stocks are compromised as fish seek colder waters (causing international tensions in places […]

  3. […] four, Will discusses the utility of “altimetry sensors” in assessing sea level rise, which can be a factor in both sudden-onset disasters (such as tsunamis) and slow-onset disasters (such as coral bleaching […]

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