The Pacific island nation of Kiribati has become the first country in the world to declare that climate change is rendering it uninhabitable.
Unfamiliar with the name? Try Gilbert Islands, its former name. And the World War II generation will know the Battle of Tarawa, the site of one of the bloodiest in U.S. Marine Corps history. It was a critical battle to free the Gilberts after a Japanese invasion and two years of occupation.
Now Kiribati, an independent country since 1979, with a population of 103,000, is facing another invasion. Its 33 low-lying islands are being attacked by a rising sea, a result of climate change, also interchangeably called global warming. Kiribati’s government last year began purchasing land for evacuating its people — eight square miles on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji Islands, 1,200 miles away.
Other Pacific island countries are expected to follow Kiribati’s lead and declare themselves uninhabitable in the next few years, while major parts of other nations will also be decimated by climate change. An anticipated 3-foot rise in sea level will put one seventh of Bangladesh underwater, for example.
We here have more time, but not as much as one would think, before things get bad and then worse on Long Island and New York City. Significant portions of both are expected to be hit hard in coming decades by sea level rise.
Preparing for this, last week the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held four public meetings, two on Long Island and two in the city, to seek citizen input on a report of the Sea Level Rise Task Force created by the state in 2007.
The DEC sums up the report on its website. The DEC states: “By 2100 scientists project that sea levels along New York’s coastlines and estuaries will likely be 18 to 50 inches higher, though they could be as much as 75 inches higher.” With much of Long Island and New York City, only 2, 3, 4 and 5 feet above sea level, those kinds of increases could be devastating.
There are projections of the sea level rise at Montauk Point. In the decade starting with 2020, they range from a low of 2 inches above the levels of the last decade to a high of 10; in the decade starting with 2050 an increase of 8 and a high of 30 inches; in the decade beginning with 2080; a low of 13 and high of 58; and in 2100 a prediction of a total low of 15 and a high of 72 inches.
Long Island naturalist Larry Penny says low-lying downtown Montauk could be especially hard hit, along with other areas of the town. Indeed, much of the Napeague stretch between Montauk and Amagansett could end up underwater with Montauk becoming several islands.
As for Shelter Island, he said, “Shelter Island is pretty high,” but land along the Ram Island causeway “is vulnerable.”
Commenting on other vulnerable Long Island locations, Mr. Penny, former director of the East Hampton Department of Environmental Protection, cited parts of East Hampton, Noyac, North Sea, “downtown Sag Harbor especially,” Shirley (where one of the DEC meetings was held), “Westhampton Beach is very vulnerable,” Mastic, Mattituck, “Riverhead is very low” and Fire Island, among other locations.
“New York City will have a hell of a time,” he said. “Scary.”
The DEC also notes: “Most of the sea-level rise observed to date has been due to the thermal expansion of warming waters. But today, added water from melting glaciers and land ice sheets is starting to contribute more to sea-level rise than heat-driven expansion of existing seawater. And the Arctic and Antarctic have abundant supplies of land ice yet to melt, all of which will add to sea levels.”
The report offers recommendations, such as: “Provide financial support, guidance and tools for community-based vulnerability assessments … Support increased reliance on non-structural measures and natural protective features to reduce impacts … Raise public awareness of the adverse impacts of sea-level rise and climate change and of the potential adaptive strategies.”
Key issues in climate change are the burning of fossil fuels that have caused global warming. As important in increasing global warming is denial of the situation, led in the U.S. by Republican leaders of Congress. We must move to a society energized 100 percent by clean, green power. And reality must be recognized.
Otherwise we will see more plaintive declarations such as these on the national website of Kiribati — “Although in most of the world there is some time to plan and prepare for climate change, Kiribati is the first to feel its effects as a direct threat to continued life in our country … In Kiribati, the entire nation faces real danger — our own survival is at stake as a people, as a unique and vibrant culture and as a sovereign nation.” And little Kiribati shares none of the responsibility for the situation. Kiribati’s carbon dioxide emissions have been “lower than any other country except one in the world,” it says.
As Pope Francis emphasized last week in his encyclical on the environment: “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political … It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
Karl Grossman’s syndicated “Suffolk Closeup” column is printed in the Shelter Island Reporter, a Times/Review Newsgroup publication.