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Climate change: island life in a volatile world
Climate change: island life in a volatile world

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4.3 Dilemmas of climate change

In Section 4.1, we looked at claims that climatic change thousands of years ago triggered the movement of people into the ocean, eventually leading to the settling of islands like Tuvalu. We have also seen that these islands only rose out of the ocean because of dynamic geological processes coupled with dramatic changes in climate and sea level.

Activity 8

Take a moment to consider how an understanding of the formation of oceanic islands like Tuvalu makes you feel about the current predicament of the Tuvaluans. Has it changed the way you think about human-induced global climate change and the responses or responsibilities this might entail?

The people of Tuvalu claim that carbon emissions are changing global climate. In particular, they point to the unwillingness of nation states like the USA and Australia to support the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to reduce these emissions. The idea that the earth's natural greenhouse effect is being enhanced by a build-up in carbon and other greenhouse gases because of non-renewable energy use is fully supported by many environmental campaigners around the world, such as Molly Conisbee and Andrew Simms, the authors of Environmental Refugees (2003; see Reading 1B). This notion is also supported by the huge international consortium of climate scientists that comprises the IPCC. Similarly, for Nunn (2003), and many other geographers who have made a study of oceanic islands, the inherent changeability and precariousness of island life is reason not to discount human-induced climate change, but to take it very seriously indeed.

Nonetheless, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are others who see this differently. Some commentators have used the idea of the constant motion of the earth's crust to counter the argument that greenhouse gas emissions are having a significant impact on sea levels. In this regard, US climate negotiator Harlan Watson has noted the particular instability of the Pacific: ‘The South Pacific is very volcanically unstable on the sea floor … so you have some natural subsidence occurring anyway. Islands are appearing and disappearing all the time’ (cited in Kriner, 2002, p. 2). Other voices in the climate change debate have argued that because global climate fluctuates constantly, current warming is nothing out of the ordinary. Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, for example, has suggested that as the planet is still coming out of the Little Ice Age, a gradual warming and attendant rise of sea level is to be expected (Lomborg, 2001, p. 263). Similarly, Bill Mitchell of the Australian Tidal Facility claims that there is little evidence in the Pacific of sea level changing more rapidly than that which would be expected from gradual natural warming (Field, 2002).

It would be an oversimplification, however, to suggest that the climate change debate neatly divides itself into two opposing factions. Researchers and campaigners of all persuasions have taken the possibility of human-induced changes into account as well as the many physical variations that are not reducible to human activity, and this leaves room for very different weightings to be applied to the many variables involved.

Thinking through territories and flows does not offer any easy answers to, or any direct route out of, the dilemmas posed by the prospect of a human contribution to global environmental change. Yet it can offer a versatile way to approach any such issue that brings together human and non-human forces. Furthermore, with the kind of issues that present themselves in the contemporary world, the need to address human and non-human processes together seems to be more the rule than the exception.


  • There is evidence that natural fluctuations of climate may have induced the earliest human settlers of oceanic islands to head out into the ocean, and may have put later island territories under severe stress.

  • Islands are both created and destroyed by shifts and flows of the earth's crust, forces that are largely beyond human influence.

  • The difficulty of disentangling human impacts on global climate from natural fluctuations means that working out the human contribution to these environmental changes is a complex and contested process.

  • While territories may appear stable or fixed, our planet is constantly in the making, all the way down to the earth's crust and the molten rock beneath it.