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Flooding from the sea in a village in Kiribati, a small island developed state, in September 2015. While the people of Kiribati account for little to nothing in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, they are forced to face the direct consequences of global warming. Photo: LightRocket via Getty Images

The climate change dilemma facing Maldives, Mauritius and other tourism-dependent small island nations: their livelihoods or their lives?

  • Many small island developing states, or Sids, rely on tourism, but the industry is a major driver of climate change, which threatens to submerge their nations
  • While salvaging the economies of these countries is complex, there has never been serious efforts by Sids to consider different economic sectors, one expert says
Come visit the Maldives, its president entreated the world at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, moments before switching to an impassioned plea for help combating climate change. The adjacent appeals illustrated a central dilemma for many small island developing states (Sids): their livelihoods, or their lives?

The United Nations recognises 38 member states as Sids, grouped together because they face “unique social, economic and environmental challenges”.

This bloc is particularly vulnerable to climate change. It is also particularly dependent on tourism – a significant driver of climate change, accountable for 8 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions alone, according to sustainable tourism expert Stefan Gossling, and an industry devastated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The predicament these islands find themselves in is essentially recursive: attract tourism for economic survival, which in turn contributes to climate change, which in turn bleaches the colourful reefs and destroys the pristine beaches that attract tourists. As things are, by the end of the century, these low-lying islands could drown entirely.
The Maldives continues with tourism development because it has decided that is the only way it can make money before its islands are lost, according to sustainable tourism expert Stefan Gossling. Picture Alliance via Getty Images

“The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees [Celsius warming] is a death sentence for the Maldives,” said the state’s president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, to the UN General Assembly last week.

The climate change appeals are nothing new, made year after year as these islands are pummelled by storms and the seas rise like a “slow-moving killer”, as April Baptiste from New York’s Colgate University puts it.

Baptiste, a professor of environmental studies as well as Africana and Latin American studies, researches environmental justice in the Caribbean region.


She says the island states’ appeals had gone ignored for years because they were essentially seen as “dispensable”. With little land, political power and financial capital, it was easy to overlook their plight.

These are also islands with a history of exploitation that dates back centuries and states whose full-time residents – not tourists – are primarily black and brown.

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“You have that layer of race, racism, marginality to take into consideration,” Baptiste said. “I absolutely believe that’s at the heart of the conversation as to why small island developing states are not taken seriously.”

People and governments have taken matters into their own hands over recent years. One man from the island nation of Kiribati sought refugee status in New Zealand on the basis that climate change posed an existential threat to his homeland, though he was eventually deported.

This past week, Vanuatu announced it would seek to bring climate change before the International Court of Justice. Although largely symbolic – any ruling would not be legally binding – the move, as intended by the government, seeks to clarify international law.


Last month, a group of Pacific island nations – contending with encroaching saltwater that destroys crops and pollutes freshwater supplies – took the step of declaring their traditional sea boundaries would remain intact, even if their coastlines shrank beneath the waves.

Vanuatu, a South Pacific archipelago of 83 islands, recently announced it would seek to bring climate change before the International Court of Justice. Photo: Getty Images

Gossling, a professor at Sweden’s Linnaeus University School of Business and Economics, and Daniel Scott, a geography and environmental management professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo, are two creators of the Climate Change Vulnerability Index for Tourism.


With the aim of bringing the issue to policymakers’ attention, they identified the countries with tourism economies most at risk from climate change. The Sids made up a substantial portion of the list.

“The Maldives identified this years ago and they pointed out: ‘We’re going to continue our tourism development, because that’s the only way we can make money in the next couple decades before our islands are lost,’” Scott said.

For the Sids, this central climate-change tension between lives and livelihood is mirrored in their response to the coronavirus pandemic. To prevent the virus’ spread and save lives, they closed their borders, and their tourism-focused economies were accordingly ravaged over the past 18 months.

There is no guarantee of survival for any one nation in a world where the Maldives cease to exist
Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih

Mauritius isn’t wholly dependent on tourism, but that sector does make up a significant amount of its foreign revenue, said Jagdish Koonjul, the permanent representative to the United Nations for the tiny Indian Ocean island that lies to the east of Madagascar. Its borders fully reopen in October, and Koonjul said Mauritius hopes to attract 650,000 tourists between then and summer 2022.


Mauritius, Koonjul said, is “very lucky” compared to others in the bloc because of its economic diversification, relatively high land, and coral reef that prevents erosion. But it’s not safe from climate change.

Mauritius and other Sids are looking to the bigger, more industrialised countries to buy into an ambitious commitment at the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Glasgow.

“We miss this train now, and we are doomed,” Koonjul said.

Tuvalu, a low-lying South Pacific island nation of about 11,000 people, has been classified as “extremely vulnerable” to climate change by the United Nations Development Programme. Photo: Getty Images

The scores of speeches at this year’s UN General Assembly tended to follow a pattern. The states had specific asks, including immediate and significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, debt restructuring and financial assistance – especially given the impact of the coronavirus on their tourism-dependent economies.


“Industrialised countries have an obligation to assist the states most affected by climate change because they created a problem in the first instance,” said Gaston Browne, prime minister of the Caribbean Sea’s Antigua and Barbuda.

The same day, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves cast the major powers’ actions thus far as little more than “pious mouthings and marginal tinkering”.

“On this, humanity is at the midnight hour. Can we meet the challenge? We may not live to find out the answer if the usual continues,” the Caribbean nation’s premier said.

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Salvaging the economic fate of these countries is complex. Baptiste says there’s no overarching policy aimed at retraining people whose livelihoods are vulnerable in new trades. And Gossling argues that, while they’re not the culprits behind global warming, the Sids aren’t directly confronting the friction between climate change prevention measures and their tourism reliance.

“I also think there’s never been serious efforts by the Sids to actually also consider different economic sectors, because very often it’s been very self-evident that you would focus on tourism, you would develop for tourism and that you, by definition, then almost would become dependent on tourism,” he said. “And I think the strange thing – this conflict has never been vocalised by Sids.”

What has been vocalised is a clarion call for substantive action by rich, developed countries. Now that the ramifications of climate breakdown have reached countries that could long pretend it didn’t exist, the Sids hope the message is finally getting through.

The poet John Donne wrote that “no man is an island entire of itself”. In the same vein, Maldives’ president Solih drove home the point that the island nations have been making for years: “There is no guarantee of survival for any one nation in a world where the Maldives cease to exist.”