Climate Change Could Starve Island Nations Before They’re Flooded

Sea level rise may wipe some small Pacific countries off the map, but that’s not the only problem residents have to worry about.
Benjie Baldenero (right) and a colleague prepare coconuts to be made into copra at his coconut farm in Hernani town on the Philippine island of Samar, the gateway for many of East Asia's deadliest storms. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/Getty Images)
Dec 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

If the old adage “no man is an island” is correct, we’re in luck. Because being an island in an era of climate change is generally bad news.

Though an altered climate will have an affect on crops throughout the world, potentially leading to decreased food security and higher prices, these effects will be magnified for many island nations. Not only are islands located in the middle of a lot of water—which is both rising and a major factor in erosion-causing storms and catastrophic weather events like cyclones—they tend to have less land to begin with. As the ocean rises, there will be less room for plants and people alike.

According to recent research from the International Food Policy Research Institute, climate change scenarios in the Philippines show that an additional 1.4 million people will be at risk of hunger by 2030—and the number will be 2.5 million by 2050. Similarly low-lying island nations aren’t much better off.

“The impacts vary, but particularly in tropical and developing countries, the impact of climate change on the agriculture sector is negative,” said Mark Rosegrant, director of the environment and production technology division at IFPRI. “In addition, climate change drives up world prices.” People in developing countries throughout the world will have a harder time affording food. This phenomenon will be magnified for island nations, which tend to have higher food prices to begin with because of their remote locations and lack of enough farmland to feed the population. (Many countries also have import taxes or other trade barriers that further increase prices.) Agriculture has become such an international business that food security is no longer impacted just by what grows in the backyard, but what grows halfway around the world too.

But the Philippines are in a much better position than other island nations, according to Rosegrant. “The Pacific Islands will be hit very hard because they’re heavily dependent on imported food, and prices tend to be higher because they’re quite remote,” he explained. “Then they’ll get hit again because of climate change.”

Take Tuvalu, for example: The low-lying Pacific nation has been described as the “canary” of climate change, as the island has already started losing land to rising sea levels and could be among the first nations to disappear entirely. In the last 10 years, 15 percent of the population has already moved elsewhere, while 70 percent of those left said they too would leave if “climate stressors worsened in the years ahead.” The immediate future of the island itself, not just its agriculture, is at stake.

The government of the Philippines is already taking steps to preempt the worst of climate change. The IFPRI has recommended it get rid of its “rice self-sufficiency policy,” which is meant to protect domestic rice farmers from imports. “A lot of countries have a version of this policy, and it restricts trade by keeping prices higher than they should be,” Rosegrant explained. “The theory is that they’re helping farmers, but consumers tend to get hit hard.” Evidentially, the global problem of climate change really does demand global solutions—even when it comes to increasing food security through unrestricted trade.

However, there’s little hope for future trade without crops that can tolerate the increased instances of drought and higher temperatures that climate models predict. While countries like the United States can easily fund research into drought-tolerant corn, lettuce, and other crops, this is not always the case for developing nations. Luckily, Rosegrant noted, there is a “substantial group of international breeding centers and international agricultural research” dedicated to creating solutions for farmers with various climate and soil conditions. “The international rice research institute is based in the Philippines,” Rosegrant said, “so there’s significant transfer from those institutions.”

While stopping climate change may still be a political battle, agricultural research groups seem to be treating it as a given. That’s the good news. On a more somber note, even the best seeds in the world won’t be much help to islands whose surface area shrinks significantly enough to chase away the population or that are so beleaguered by storms that harvests are regularly destroyed.