Why are islands in the South Pacific disappearing?

Aerial view of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, 2011. Tuvalu is a remote country of low lying atolls, making it vulnerable to climate change. Lily-Anne Homasi/DFAT (CC BY)

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Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson is a journalist covering climate change and the environment. She is from the island of Savai’i in Samoa, South Pacific, and her personal experience as a Pacific Islander informs her reporting and understanding of how climate is altering both the earth and how we live.

Jackson’s three-part series, "An Impossible Choice" for The Guardian, details the reality of relocating entire villages as climate change "arrives at your door."

For a recent episode of "To The Best Of Our Knowledge," Shannon Henry Kleiber talked with Jackson about maps, sea levels, disappearing islands and having hope in the face of an existential threat.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Shannon Henry Kleiber: Let's talk about geography and how climate change is altering the way we live. I'm thinking about some historical maps I have. Throughout history, as we learned more, we added to maps. But now things are being subtracted. We thought we were getting a clearer picture, and now this picture doesn't seem as clear anymore. What does it mean for our culture and our society that places could be disappearing?

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson: You look at a map. And if you look at an island in the Pacific — a droplet of water is larger than your average island in the Pacific if you drop it on a map. As kids, we used to experiment and say, OK, the size of Samoa was maybe equivalent to a gecko pool. As kids, you're trying to compare the sizes. 

For a long time, our islands were not on the maps to begin with because they were too small or too insignificant at the time to be on the maps. It's only in the past 20 years that we finally started seeing our countries, our islands — small as they were — on large world maps, to then get to the point where there is a very real possibility that we will once again not be on the maps. And not by an oversight of cartography, but that of the reality that these islands — especially atoll nations of the Pacific — could viably disappear as a result of sea level rise and climate change. That is scary. Not just scary, but also extremely unfair for those who reside on those islands.

SHK: I’m trying to picture this. An island doesn’t just collapse on itself and fall into the sea. Or does it? What does that mean when an island disappears from a map?

LCJ: That is such a deep question. What it means is that it's not just a physical movement of a people away from their homelands. It is the loss of ancestral knowledge, of a spiritual sense of belonging and of an identity of a people. And it's just not one race, it is thousands. It is intrinsic and entrenched knowledge handed down by our ancestors. Those, too, will be gone if the lands go with it.

SHK: So if the people leave and the animals leave, where do they go?

LCJ: Currently, international law has not set forth a precedent or a natural avenue for the people of the Pacific or those in atoll nations to find refuge. So there is no simple answer to that. 

Island nations have sought solutions for themselves. Some have created migration patterns uphill, where they do have places to go to. Other islands like Tuvalu have bought land in bigger islands like Fiji, where they have larger land masses. 

The volcanic islands — like Fiji and like Samoa — are secure to a certain degree. But your atoll nations like Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, they are the ones who have to come up with solutions, with temporary measures to see where their people can go.

SHK: If the people leave, if they even think it's going to be uninhabitable, then it almost makes it uninhabitable.

LCJ: Exactly.

SHK: Can you tell me about someone, maybe one particular person who had this experience and whose story really sticks with you?

LCJ: Vanessa is a mother whose entire home was wiped away in a matter of seconds during Cyclone Evan in Samoa. She lived on a floodplain with her husband and their children. They had built a small business over many years and had a little warehouse.

The floodwaters were rising so fast, and they were trying to climb up to the top of the building. She had a moment where she considered letting go of one of the children. Every time she tells me the story, she cries. As any mother would.

SHK: Because she thought she would have to choose one of her children.

LCJ: Yeah, there's a split second where it's like, I can't carry both kids. I have to let one go in order for the other to survive and myself to survive. And she shares the story in the most heart-wrenching way. And so it was then as they were sitting on the roof of their house, as the winds bellowed around them and as the floodwaters took away their life's work, that they decided they were going to migrate to Australia. 

She lives there now with her children and her husband. But every day, she says, it's just not the same. You know, you stand there, and you just don't belong. But it is a conscious decision that she and her family made for the safety of their children, but also for a legitimate future that will continue to thrive without the threat of flood waters or extreme weather events taking it away from them.

SHK: You’re bringing many of these stories to the forefront, but we don’t hear them that often. What do you wish more people knew about what was going on in those communities?

LCJ: To be very honest with you, after spending the last three years in the U.S., I see the nuanced experiences of those in small island nations or communities are not necessarily valued. And I understand that there's no validity or connection to, say, a New Yorker or someone from Wisconsin. But the reality is that learning and knowing that there are entire villages in Tuvalu, where once or twice a year, they have to carry their children, their pigs, their furniture, their electronics, like the fridges and ovens and so forth. They have to raise them up and put them on roofs and on tables for a few days or up to a week because of king tides. 

There are people who live within the parameters of the climate crisis, and the climate crisis has been real for many on islands for many, many years, but that's never really been a logical or a meaningful concern for the global North because we don't hold the same influence in international spaces.

Pacific Islanders have been experiencing climate change and climate crisis for a long time, but have done the least to contribute to the problem. So if knowing these stories can make a difference, that’s something powerful climate journalists can do.

SHK: And that it's not an answer, just to say, migrate, move, leave.

LCJ: No, it's very nuanced. In my work of interviewing people who are cultural leaders, ambassadors, political leaders ... people don't want to move. And it's not fair to suggest or provide a simple template for islands to move. It's not a natural thing to say to the high chief who has governed his tribe or his village for years ... 'OK, now you can come live in an apartment in New Zealand.' That is robbing that person, not just of their house or the land, but of the spirit that they have to protect and to continue handing over the ropes of leadership and of cultural knowledge to those who come after him or her.

SHK: If you move, at least you're alive, but you've really lost enormous history and enormous cultural importance.

LCJ: In the series I did with The Guardian, we really looked at that question of it being an impossible choice. You put it really well, Shannon, in that you will live physically, right? You will be standing and walking and eating and doing the things you do as a human being to survive. But you will not have your family and your ancestral values and the spirit of the land that you come from. 

When someone dies in your family in many Polynesian cultures, we bury them on our land, and in many cases, they bury them in the house because the dead is still a part of us. They are still very much a part of us. And the land houses all of those spirits. If you can't move the ancestral bones, you also cannot move the spirit that comes with them. And so that's a level of loss that no scientist or anthropologist can gauge, when it comes to that sort of tangible cultural assets.

SHK: And still, there is a lot of climate denial now and a lot of climate grief. So many people just cannot get their mind around it. And it's too sad and too complicated. But in your work, what I think is so interesting is it still sounds very hopeful. How do you keep that hope in the face of it all?

LCJ: There's something you have to understand about Pacific Islanders. Our cultures are governed by laughter and sarcasm — really inappropriate sarcasm sometimes. Our very light-spirited people don't necessarily grieve like the global North does, and we don't necessarily have this sense of great loss or trauma associated with the climate crisis, because when you live in that reality, you just exist and survive each day as it comes. 

You don't really have the luxury of time to question, or to call power — to account — or to do all these things that come with the Western approach to grief or protest. So the grief is not necessarily associated with the loss because that's the lived reality at this point.