Climatic Change and the Future of Atoll States


  • Peter Roy
  • John Connell


Climate change, greenhouse effect, sea-level change, atoll islands, island economies, groundwater, coastal erosion, environmental refugees


The combination of rising sea level and increased storminess that is expected to accompany changes in global climate due to the greenhouse effect may well have severe impacts on low lying coral islands in tropical oceans. This paper deals principally with the atoll island states of Kiribati, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu which comprise only coral-rubble islands with land rarely rising more than 3 m above present sea level. Their combined populations are about 300,000, and since colonial times, island economies have not achieved self-sufficiency. Presently they are substantially dependent on foreign aid and remittances from islanders who work overseas. The situation is worsening as natural resources decline, populations grow, aspirations for better living standards increase and the terms of trade worsen. Atoll island ecology and the ability to sustain human habitation depend in large part on fresh ground water reserves which are related to island size. Ground water degradation due to greenhouse- induced coastal erosion and inundation of low-lying ground will further reduce agricultural productivity and other island resources. The economic and social viability of atoll island states in the future is therefore doubtful; their people may become the first environmental refugees of the greenhouse era.