With climate change a growing concern, those living on small islands and near coastlines stand to lose the most.

Addressing the UN Climate Summit in New York just a few weeks ago, poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands applied the metaphor of the “lagoon that will devour” to depict the rising sea levels threatening to engulf her island home.

Many small islands are at grave risk of rising sea levels and extreme weather events as a result of climate change.

The Marshall Islands are already suffering concurrent floods and drought, with king tides forcing the closure of the airport earlier this year and many people compelled to move inland from the shoreline.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, issued earlier this year, finds conclusively that the effects of global warming are being felt in small island states, as they are required to take urgent and expensive action to mitigate against storm surges and rising tides, coastal erosion and soil salination, weather extremes and threats to native species and marine life.

Without action, vital infrastructure, settlements, food sources and facilities that support the livelihood of entire island communities are in danger.

In the Caribbean and Pacific islands, more than 50 per cent of the population live within 1.5 kilometres of the shore. The IPCC notes that “almost without exception, international airports, roads and capital cities in the small islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans and the Caribbean are sited along the coast, or on tiny coral islands.”

Tourism, one of the major contributors to GDP and employment on many small islands, will be damaged by accelerated beach erosion, degradation of coral reefs and a loss of cultural heritage from flooding.

In this, the International Year of Small Island Developing States, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has observed that climate change has, in some regions, “aggravated conflict over scarce land, and could well trigger large-scale migration in the decades ahead. And rising sea levels put at risk the very survival of all small island states. These and other implications for peace and security have implications for the United Nations itself.”

Within the worldwide NDY family, we have a number of staff members who hail from islands – from Samoa and Tonga in the Pacific to Mauritius, the Philippines and Indonesia. We also have colleagues who were raised on small Australian islands, such as North Stradbroke, which remind us that climate change impacts aren’t being felt “over there.”

It is very sobering and confronting to know that the islands on which my colleagues were born, and where many of their families still live, may not exist in 50 years’ time – or at the very least will look vastly different.

What can we do about it?

Resilience – the ability to adapt, learn, recover and move on – is rising up the global agenda, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge is helping cities respond to the shocks and stresses of today’s challenging climates. Members receive funding to hire a Chief Resilience Officer who is charged with developing a resilience strategy. Members can also connect with a like-minded network, and gain access to a platform of services that support implementation.  We should be looking at how we invest in similar initiatives for small island states.

Sustainable building is undoubtedly part of the solution.

Small island states need advanced engineering skills to help with complex projects, particularly in relation to water security. In the Pacific, small island states have joined forces to progress a new Pacific Partnership for Atoll Water Security to better anticipate and withstand the impacts of drought, but we need to ensure critical engineering skills can be seconded to our small island neighbours to help with water treatment infrastructure projects.

Marshall Islands

A reservoir on the Marshall Islands, a source of freshwater for the people of Majuro


Electricity on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean costs up to five times more than in developed countries, due to the high import costs of fossil fuels. Implementing renewable energy solutions can help the nation build wealth while also reducing its (very small) carbon footprint.

Other islands are looking at solar, wind, LED lighting for municipal applications, waste-to-energy, and geothermal technology. Aruba, for example, has a wind farm and is planning more. Barbados is looking at how to use a special breed of sugar cane for co-generation.

As these small islands – which generate a fraction of our GDP – grapple with climate change and look at how to invest in sustainable technologies, Australia must also maintain our investment in renewable energy technologies. We must recommit to our Renewable Energy Target, which has set a 20 per cent minimum by 2020.

In the world of climate change, no one – no business, government or nation – is an island. Australia, as the world’s largest island, has a special leadership responsibility to respond to the plight of other island states, and that means reducing our own super-sized carbon footprint and helping our fellow islanders build sustainable futures.