Global Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society

Vulnerability and strength: islands on the front lines of the climate crisis


The first three weeks of July 2023 were the hottest ever recorded with heatwaves and extreme weather events experienced across the world. Hundreds of people have died in flash flooding across Asia and huge wildfires engulfed the forests of North America causing communities across the continent to be blanketed in a haze of smoke.

The climate crisis is increasing the strength and frequency of such extreme weather events. Europe has been hit by two major heatwaves in recent weeks causing temperatures soar to over 45°C. The fact that these heatwaves have been (controversially) dubbed Cerberus (the three-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld) and Charon (the ferryman who takes the souls of the dead across the river Styx) may give an indication as to where some meteorologists think the world is heading.

As wildfires took hold across Southern Europe tens of thousands of people had to be evacuated from towns and villages. On the Greek Island of Rhodes 20,000 locals and tourists were forced to flee fires which engulfed 9,000 hectares of land including hundreds of homes and businesses. Journalists have reported the frustration of locals at the lack of firefighting resources such as local fire engines, forest guards, forest management and fire protection. Some have suggested that this lack of preparedness is, in part, the result of decades of austerity-driven budget cuts to public services in Greece including the Fire Service which has struggled to recover as temperatures continue to soar.

The situation that has unfolded on Rhodes in recent weeks highlights the vulnerability of islands across the world. Scarce resources and geographical isolation coupled with an increased vulnerability to the physical impacts of the climate crisisput small islands in a particularly challenging position. The IPCC’s 2022 report ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ found with high confidence that small islands are increasingly impacted by rising temperatures including storm surges, tropical cyclones, sea level rise, drought, invasive species and changing precipitation patterns. The ongoing degradation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems is also set to amplify the health and livelihoods of local communities.

Alongside physical risks, social and economic deprivation has a huge impact on a community’s ability to adapt to climate change. Such vulnerabilities are not isolated to the islands of the Global South. Analysis by The Scottish Governmentfound that around half of communities in the Shetland Islands and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are amongst the most vulnerable in Scotland (20% most vulnerable datazones). This coupled with the growing impacts of the climate crisis, geopolitical instability, and the practical challenges of accessing the services, equipment and skills necessary to increase adaptive capacity (e.g. retrofit houses, install renewable energy systems etc.), leave many vulnerable.

While island communities across the world are vulnerable to the climate crisis, the severity of these impacts is particularly pronounced amongst Small Island Developing States (SIDS) where the climate crisis is already having devastating impacts. Despite the fact that SIDS contribute less than 1% of Greenhouse Gas emissions, they sit on the front lines of the climate crisis and with many facing complete destruction if temperatures continue to rise.

Given the challenges facing islands, activists and politicians from island communities are amongst the strongest advocates for climate action and climate justice. SIDS leaders were some of the strongest voices pushing for the international community to set the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Across the world island states and communities are working together to create coalitions, push for accountability and advocate for their homes at the highest level of government including at The International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. At a local level,

Alongside pushing for change at the national and international level, island communities are coming together to support more resilient places. Islands often have incredibly strong social connections which is a huge asset in building resilience and advocating for change. Community-led conservation and economic development projects on islands across the world are helping to restore damaged island ecosystems and create fairer, more stable local economies. Many island nations have turned significant areas of their territorial waters into marine protected areas making them key actors in delivering global biodiversity targets such as the new Montreal-Kunming Global Biodiversity Framework.

Despite the mounting challenges faced by islands across the world, community strength and brave political leadership offer hope for the future.


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