Denial Island

The Carteret Islands, a somewhat outlying atoll off the coast of Papua New Guinea, don't normally attract much attention. But it's a shame more people weren't paying attention in late April when a lone blogger, Dan Box, was on hand to witness the beginning of the islands' evacuation. It's a small atoll, you see, and relatively low-lying. Sea levels are rising. Flooding is increasing. And even though the island is still there, it's no longer habitable: "King tides have washed away their crops and rising sea levels poisoned those that remain with salt,"wrote Box. These days, in other words, sometimes the high tide gets so high it buries the farmland, and even when it doesn't, the salt permeates the soil. So 2,600 people need to move.

Realistically, the Carteret Islanders aren't actually the world's first climate-change refugees. Untold numbers of people have already moved as shifting weather patterns eliminate the viability of agricultural or pastoral lifestyles in certain regions of the world. But it was the first wholesale evacuation of an island forced by climate-change-induced rising tides. And it almost certainly won't be the last.

The international consequences of the looming climate catastrophe don't get that much attention. Politically speaking, it's better to keep the conversation focused on the United States of America. Indeed, environmental-policy advocates are warned not even to talk too much about climate change at all -- instead, messaging gurus say activists should paint an optimistic portrait of green jobs. The thinking is that voters don't care that much about the environment, don't care that much about foreigners, and don't like to be alarmed.

Still, it's hard to miss the fact that the elite conversation in Washington, D.C., has a distinct air of frivolity about it that attention to events abroad might dispel. If it were announced that the United States of America was planning on dumping a load of poison on the Carteret Islands rendering them uninhabitable, I think even Sen. James Inhof of Oklahoma would be spurred to action. Certainly I doubt that you'd see a Blue Dog member of the House whining that since the poison factory is located in his district, he doesn't see how we can possibly afford to stop producing the poison. Libertarians wouldn't be arguing that the pristine logic of the free market grants companies the right to poison other people's islands.

Even in a world full of political controversy, in other words, it's generally understood that it's not OK to wreck other people's homes and farms.

And this, at the end of the day, is what it's all about. I first really "got" climate change almost four years ago on a trip to Iceland. It was summer, and I hadn't planned very well and was a bit taken aback by temperatures in the 40s. I joked to an Icelander that people there must be looking forward to global warming. It turns out that they're not, at all. Rivers in Iceland are fueled by the melting of glaciers. If it gets too warm, first there will be floods, and then rivers will start to dry up as the glaciers that feed them are unable to stay cold enough long enough to regain their mass. Based on current projections, it will take over 100 years before the process of glacial shrinkage renders Iceland uninhabitable. But Icelanders don't want their country to ever become uninhabitable. Besides which, there's uncertainty associated with the science -- things might prove worse than the average projections, and Iceland's problems might prove much more severe.

Even short of uninhabitability, of course, having some rivers flood too much and others dry up will be mighty inconvenient. Iceland, as it happens, is a rich country whose residents don't rely on subsistence agriculture, so they'll be able to adjust. But prospects are more dire elsewhere. Amsterdam's been below sea level for a long time, and the Dutch are grimly going about the business of preparing for rising seas by building higher walls. But while the Dutch and the Icelanders can and will adapt, there's still a question of how much adaptation they'll have to do.

And other, less wealthy people are just going to have to hope that they have as much good fortune as the Carteret Islanders, who were able to take advantage of Papua New Guinea's organized evacuation and resettlement program. There are many other island nations out there, and if carbon emissions continue unabated, many more of them will be rendered unviable. And even on the mainland, many other people will find their lands flooded or the freshwater sources for their crops and pasture dried up. The lucky ones will be able to resettle somewhere. The unlucky ones will have to fight their way onto arable land. Or maybe it's the ones they'll be fighting who'll be the unlucky ones.

Either way, people are going to suffer. People's homes and land will be ruined, their crops poisoned, and their relatives displaced. And it's a direct consequence of activities the developed world has been undertaking ever since the Industrial Revolution. Our present mode of economic organization is slowly but surely destroying the habitats of vast swaths of humanity. Today, it's the 2,600 people of the Carteret Islands. Tomorrow it may be the 350,000 residents of the Maldives Islands. And the week after that, the 150 million residents of Bangladesh. And whether or not Americans want to see it in those terms, soon enough the residents of the developing world are going to.

This is an ethical problem, and an environmental problem, and unless we do the right thing, it's going to be a major foreign-policy problem in the future. The United States doesn't like the idea that terrorists might gain a safe haven somewhere in Pakistan. So how do we expect Indonesia to react when it is paralyzed by internal migration issues as refugees flee outlying islands and coastal areas in search of high ground, driven by floods caused by the coal plants we're harboring? We worry already that Somalia may become a breeding ground for terrorism, but we'll really have to worry if Somalis figure out that our pollution is probably driving the crippling drought that's pushed 45 percent of their population into some stage of malnutrition.

National-security concerns aren't the only reason -- or even the best reason -- to worry about the climate crisis. But those who shy away from the costs of dealing with it need to understand that short-term politics aside, it's not an issue we're going to be able to just slink away from.

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