In the vast Pacific Ocean lie thousands of islands with rich cultures and histories. One of them is the country of Tuvalu. The country, with a population of about 12,000 people, is the fourth least-populated nation in the world. Tuvaluans have called their island home for thousands of years and depend on fishing as well as their islands for food and livelihoods. As an Alaska Native I can relate to their culture. It shares a tradition of hunting and fishing for survival, as well as a deep connection to the sea. This island and my own home face a similar threat from the impacts of climate change.
Tuvalu and many other Pacific Island nations are low-lying. The tallest point in Tuvalu is fourteen feet above sea-level. This is problematic, since studies show sea levels will continue to rise as a result our changing climate. In late September, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) released its fifth assessment on the impacts of climate change, and their report predicted that oceans would rise by at least a foot or two this century. This is a larger increase than predicted in the IPCC’s previous report, and raises the stakes for small island-nations such as Tuvalu.
One or two feet may not seem like much, but in Tuvalu the average elevation is just about six feet above sea level. That means that infrastructure – homes, schools, workplaces – will be compromised. When this happens, Tuvaluans may be among the first nations forced to completely desert their homeland, creating a state of climate refugees. In Alaska, Shishmaref is facing a similar fate. The small Arctic village is located on a barrier reef. When I visited the Alaskan island last year, while working for the World Wildlife Fund, many people told me how reduced sea ice and increased storms had already carried away one home in their village. It struck me to hear of their experience and plea for action.
Stories like this illustrate the importance of Maxine Burkett’s work. Professor Burkett is an Associate Professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii, and the former director of the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy (ICAP). She is an expert on climate change law and policy, and her previous work includes advising Pacific Island nations like Tuvalu on how to move forward. Her lecture, titled “Climate Refugees and the Challenge of Statehood: Defining the Problem, Identifying Solutions,” is on Thursday, October 17, at 12:30 PM in Yale Law School's Room 121. The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute are honored to host her while she explores the issue of climate justice and regional adaptation and mitigation measures in the Pacific. All are welcome to be a part of this important discussion.