Improving Solutions for the Asian-Pacific ‘Sinking Islands’ Paradigm

by Imaan Budhram
3012 words



Legal Challenges of the ‘Sinking Islands’ Paradigm

Legal Solutions for Kiribati

Clash Between Western and Asian-Pacific Discourse



Clash Between Western and Asian-Pacific Discourse

            The ‘sinking islands’ paradigm can be described as both a material and discursive occurrence (Farbotko & Lazrus, 2012). For instance, when discussing global solutions for this paradigm the term ‘climate refugee’ is  continuously repeated. This discourse involves a wide range of actors (e.g. climate change experts, journalists, research institutions, governments, non-governmental organizations) that make strong assertions in regards to the ‘victims’ of this paradigm (Bravo, 2009). One example of such a (Western) narrative is the idea that Asian-Pacific Islanders ‘‘are weak, passive victims with little internal resilience to fight for much more than relocation’’ and that they ‘‘thus ought to be given protection and options to legally resettle elsewhere’’ (McNamara & Gibson, 2009, p. 479). The aim of such narratives is to attract attention to the urgentness of this issue, but it simultaneously creates representational and material marginalization (Bravo, 2009). After all, this narrative perpetuates a discourse in which the inaction of Western states in regards to reduction of CO2 emission is omitted (McNamara & Gibson, 2009). This can have pernicious consequences for an emancipatory approach to this paradigm (Bettini, 2013). Hence, it’s important to realize that the framing of these narratives impact the representations of those termed ‘climate refugees’. In this sense, these narratives and climate change refugee discourse are performative, meaning that the ways in which one talks and writes about those termed ‘climate refugees’ subsequently influences the current and future meaning, understanding and legitimization of the term ‘climate refugees’ (Crate & Nuttall, 2009).

            Nevertheless, one can notice that one aspect is strongly neglected in these dominant narratives, namely the experiences of those who are directly affected by the ‘sinking islands’ paradigm and their views on the idea of climate change mobility (Farbotko & Lazrus, 2012). For instance, McNamara and Gibson (2009) found that the narratives perpetuated in the media and the solutions visualized by U.N. Asian-Pacific ambassadors14 contrasted each other. While states such as Australia and the U.S. focused on the aspect of legal resettlement of Pacific Islanders elsewhere, the Asian-Pacific ambassadors were in favour of a strong, global approach to climate change mitigation efforts so that Asian-Pacific Islanders would not have to leave their own states (McNamara & Gibson, 2009). Attention should be drawn to two specific sentiments that were shared among all ambassadors. Firstly, the idea of other states to perceive migration as opposed to mitigation as a strategy to use for the ‘sinking islands’ paradigm signals a defeatist and irresponsible approach to the issue. The ambassadors did not consider migration an acceptable solution but were of the opinion that states which heavily contribute to carbon emission change must undertake action to severely limit the impacts of climate change (McNamara & Gibson, 2009). Secondly, the categorization of ‘climate refugees’ was not well-received since such categorization takes away the acknowledgement of sovereignty of the Asian-Pacific Islands and it harms the identity of the Asian-Pacific Islanders (McNamara & Gibson, 2009).

14 Interviews were held with ambassadors from the following states: Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.

            Since the Asian-Pacific Islands are each dealing with different stages of climate change (e.g. different levels of seawater intrusion, degrading coastal soil fertility, changing rainfall patterns, depleting coastal fisheries), Islands are also undertaking different climate change mitigation measures (McNamara & Gibson, 2009). For instance, the Solomon Islands are considered to be Asian-Pacific Islands that are the most susceptible to increasing sea levels (Van der Ploeg et al., 2020). As a result, one resilience measure taken by Islanders of these islands is internal migration in the form of relocation to higher ground or the main-island in Malaita. On the other hand, there are Asian-Pacific Islands that are more focusing on implementing resilience measures that strengthen, for instance, the protection of coastal communities in case national disasters (e.g. tropical cyclones) strike (Daly et al., 2010). One example of an island that is incorporating such an approach is Samoa. Aside from building sea walls, Samoa is focused on using natural resources such as offshore sand as a means to mitigate the impacts of, for example, a cyclone (Daly et al., 2010).