Small islands caught between tourism economy, climate change – KIRO 7 News Seattle


NEW YORK – (AP) – Visit the Maldives, its president wooed the world at this year’s United Nations General Assembly just before moving on to a passionate appeal for help fight climate change. The appeals opposite illustrated a central dilemma for many small island developing states: their livelihoods or their lives?

The United Nations recognizes 38 member states, scattered across the world’s waters, as small island developing States, united because they face “unique social, economic and environmental challenges”.

This block is particularly vulnerable to climate change. This block is also particularly dependent on tourism – a major driver of climate change, which, according to Stefan Gössling, expert on sustainable tourism, is responsible for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions – and an industry devastated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The dilemma these islands find themselves in is essentially recursive: attracting tourism to ensure economic survival, which in turn contributes to climate change, which in turn is bleaching the colorful reefs and destroying the pristine beaches that attract tourists. By the end of the century, these low-lying islands could completely drown.

“The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is a death sentence for the Maldives,” said President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih last week before the UN General Assembly.

The annual summit is an opportunity for each of the 193 members of the international body to step into the limelight on the world stage. But the Maldives – perhaps best known worldwide as a playground for wealthy honeymooners and Bollywood celebrities – had a particularly high-profile platform this year. Your Secretary of State is President of the General Assembly and Solih spoke in third place overall – just after US President Joe Biden.

But the climate change calls are nothing new, they are made year after year as these islands are ravaged by storms and the seas rise like a “slow killer,” as Colgate University’s April Baptiste puts it.

Baptiste, Professor of Environmental Studies and Africana and Latin American Studies, researches environmental justice in the Caribbean. She says the island states’ appeals have been ignored for years because they were essentially viewed as “expendable”. With little land, political power, and financial capital, it was easy to overlook their plight. These are also islands with centuries of exploitation and states whose full-time residents – not tourists – are mostly blacks and browns.

“You have to take into account that layer of race, racism and marginality,” she said. “I absolutely believe this is at the heart of the discussion about why small island developing states are not being taken seriously.”

People and governments have taken matters into their own hands in recent years.

A man from the island nation of Kiribati applied for refugee status in New Zealand on the grounds that climate change was an existential threat to his homeland, but was eventually deported. Last week Vanuatu announced that it would bring climate change to the International Court of Justice. Although largely symbolic – any decision would not be legally binding – the move intended by the government is intended to clarify international law.

Last month, a group of Pacific island nations – struggling with invading saltwater, ruining crops and polluting freshwater supplies – took the step of declaring that their traditional sea borders would remain intact even if their coasts shrank under the waves.

Gössling, professor at the Swedish Linnaeus University School of Business and Economics, and Daniel Scott, professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo in Canada, are two creators of the Climate Change Vulnerability Index for Tourism. With the aim of making policy makers aware of the issue, they identified the countries with tourism economies that are most at risk from climate change. The small island developing states made up an essential part of the list.

“The Maldives realized this years ago and pointed out:” We will continue our tourism development because this is the only way we can make money for the next few decades before our islands are lost, “said Scott.

For the small island developing states, this central area of ​​tension of climate change between life and livelihood is reflected in their reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. To prevent the virus from spreading and to save lives, they closed their borders and their tourism-centric economy has been devastated accordingly in the past 18 months.

Mauritius is not entirely dependent on tourism, but this sector accounts for a significant part of its foreign income, says the permanent representative of the tiny island in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar to the United Nations. The borders will fully reopen in October, and Jagdish Koonjul said Mauritius hopes to attract 650,000 tourists by next summer.

Mauritius, Koonjul said, is “very happy” compared to others in the block due to its economic diversification, relatively high land, and coral reef that prevents erosion.

But it’s not safe from climate change. Mauritius and other small island developing states expect the larger, more industrialized countries to make an ambitious commitment to the upcoming United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow.

“We’re missing this train now and we’re doomed,” said Koonjul.

The numerous speeches at this year’s UN General Assembly tended to follow one heading. They started with courtesies addressed to the President of the General Assembly and then touched a laundry list of topics: maybe a pet problem, but definitely conflict, coronavirus, and climate change. The rhetoric often merged, but the speeches of the leaders of the small island developing States – who have the most to lose in the near future – stood out with a strong eloquence that reflected Koonjul.

“Will Tuvalu remain a member state of the UN when it finally goes under? Who will help us? ”Asked Kausea Natano, Prime Minister of the Pacific Ocean, on Saturday.

States had specific demands, including immediate and significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions, debt rescheduling and financial aid – especially given the impact of the coronavirus on their tourism-dependent economies.

“Developed countries have an obligation to help the countries most affected by climate change because they created a problem in the first place,” said Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean Sea, on Saturday.

On the same day, the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, considered the previous actions of the great powers to be little more than “pious talk and marginal tinkering”.

“Humanity is at midnight. Can we meet the challenge? We may not see the answer again if the usual continues, “said the Prime Minister of the Caribbean country.

Saving the economic fate of these countries is complex. Baptiste says there is no overarching policy aimed at retraining people whose livelihoods are at risk in new professions.

And Gössling argues that while the small island developing states are not the culprits of global warming, they are not directly faced with the friction between measures to prevent climate change and their reliance on tourism.

“I also believe that there have never been any serious efforts by SIDS to actually take various branches of the economy into account, because very often it was very natural that one concentrates on tourism, develops for tourism and then, by definition, almost” from Tourism would become dependent, ”he said. “And I find the strange thing – this conflict was never vocalized by SIDS.”

What has been heard is a clear call for substantial action from rich, developed countries. Now that the effects of climate change have reached countries that have long pretended not to exist, the small island developing States are hoping the message will finally get through.

The poet John Donne wrote that “no man is an island to himself”. In the same direction, Solih referred to the point that the island states have represented for years: “In a world in which the Maldives cease to exist, there is no guarantee of survival for a nation.”


Associated Press reporter Nick Perry contributed to this report from Wellington, New Zealand. Follow Mallika Sen on Twitter at