The Maldives and Climate Change: A New Type of Refugee

How climate change and rising sea levels lead to environmental refugees and threaten a nation
By Sophia Vos[fruitful_sep]“If you allow for a two degree rise in temperature, you are actually agreeing to kill us,” argued Maldivian President Nasheed regarding the international community’s attempt to mitigate climate change at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. This country is comprised of 1,200 tiny islands, only 345,000 people, and a GDP per capita of only $14,000.  This might seem inconsequential, however Maldives is likely to be the first victim of climate change. In the next 100 years the Maldives may be completely uninhabitable by humans, which would make it the first nation to be eradicated by the effects of climate change. The emission of carbon dioxide around the world, but especially from the United States, China, and India cause warming and thus a melting of arctic ice.  The resulting sea level rise could engulf the Maldives, since it is one meter above sea level. The Maldives is a victim of climate change because its vulnerability and minimal contribution to the problem. Due to the continued rising of sea levels, migration will be the best possible option for the Maldivian people. As the Maldivian government has previously states, a new refugee status should be considered because they are being robbed of their national identity, property, and culture by the political decisions of nations that contribute most heavily to carbon emissions.
There are natural and geographical factors that put the Maldives in an extremely vulnerable position to the effects of climate change. As aforementioned, the Maldives is the lowest lying island in the world only a meter above sea level. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if the ocean rises only one meter, it would be enough to put the island entirely underwater. Even a small rise in sea level would be enough to make the island uninhabitable while other unaffected nations would be reluctant to change their lifestyles or policies. In addition to rising sea levels, the warming sea is bleaching the coral. The coral reefs are becoming “bleached” because they lose their color. 15% of the coral is now white and 50-70% has begun to pale.
Maldives’ perilous future is largely caused by human dilemmas that have had destructive effects on the island. Rising sea levels are a direct effect of the way top emitting nations release exorbitant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide is then trapped, which causes the planet to warm and sea levels to rise. The top six emitters of carbon dioxide (China, the United States, the European Union, India, Russia, and Indonesia in that order) are responsible for over 60% of the Earth’s CO2 emissions. The emissions already released into the atmosphere affect the environment gradually. The current situation suggests that even if humans stopped emitting CO2 immediately, there would still be a built up effect of two degrees Celsius of warming.  This amount is enough to rise sea levels over one meter and thus enough to sink the Maldives.
The Maldives was colonized by the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British consecutively. During this time, its resources were taken advantage of and the country is consequently underdeveloped. The Environmental Kuznets Curve demonstrates how the Maldives as a developing nation is not in an ideal position to fight climate change. The Kuznets Curve states that less developed nations emit more but have fewer resources to combat climate change while developed nations can afford to begin to preserve their environment. The nation primarily runs on diesel. Diesel is a carbon rich energy source which is particularly destructive for the environment, yet the country cannot afford to invest in sustainable energy such as solar energy. This abused island does not have the infrastructure to effectively combat its rising sea levels because of their low GDP, limited resources, and the overwhelming political and economic power that top emitters possess by comparison.
The current trends of climate change, sea levels rising, and the delayed effect of emissions on warming suggests that migration away from the Maldives is an inevitable reality for the Maldivian people. As I discussed previously, it will be difficult to prevent sea levels from rising less than one meter. There have been a lack of sufficient changes in emissions to save the Maldives from an imminent disappearance, paired with past emissions which will still contribute two extra degrees Celsius to the world’s temperature. This is enough to rise the sea about one meter and put the Maldives underwater. Research indicates that the Maldives has about 100 years to live and that it has already broken a threshold in allowing the Maldivian people to survive and live on their own island. It seems we may have already hit a tipping point with the Maldives, which would make it uninhabitable. If the Maldivian people cannot inhabit their homeland, they will have no choice but to travel away and find new homes and nations in order to survive.
While environmental science supports that sea levels are rising in the future, this tragedy isn’t the only reason to migrate away. Climate change has negative impact on the Maldives even today. As the atmosphere accumulates carbon, the ocean absorbs more of this carbon.  This process results in ocean acidification, which has a plethora of negative effects, such as decreased numbers of fish able to survive in this area. The Maldives depends heavily on fish as a main source of food and jobs. Those who depend on fishing to make a living or as a food source are going to face a lowered quality of life. Climate change also provokes a heightened degree of natural disasters, thus the area will become more physically dangerous to inhabit. Lastly, the people of the Maldives will have to face the extremely challenging psychological reality that they come from an island that their grandchildren will never be able to live on or fully understand their roots with, and the tombs stones of their grandparents will soon be lost at sea. These damages to the environment, economy, and psychology of the Maldives is enough to make the nation a very unsustainable and unfulfilling place to live.
Although the Maldives contributes minimally to climate change, the nation is investing billions of dollars into going carbon neutral by 2020.  Through this effort, the administration hopes to send a symbolically political message to top emitters who have more resources. The Maldives’ emissions are not enough to change whether or not they will go underwater but they are still investing their capital to reduce the few emissions they produce. The Maldives is an ideal place for solar panels, since it is sunny and flat. (Mulugetta “Deliberating on low carbon development.” 2010) The Maldives is also offering individual incentives to help citizens lower their carbon footprints. Other nations have much higher GDPs and thus a much greater access to resources to lower emissions. The Maldives is leading by example in order to make a political statement to other nations and portray that since they can limit emissions, others can as well.
As migration is increasingly necessary for survival, the Maldivian people will need a new type of refugee status that combines political and environmental aspects which respect the loss of the Maldivian people. The current status for political refugees is one that is temporary, individually granted, and catalyzed by the presence of a totalitarian authority. This definition does not apply to the Maldives as their migration from the island would be permanent, would apply to all people on the island, and is not the fault of a totalitarian dictatorship. Another possible status that does not fully encompass the Maldivian experience is that of displaced people because of natural disasters. While the natural world is causing the sea levels to rise, this is not a random arbitrary act of nature as a hurricane or a tsunami might be. The reason for displacement of the Maldivian people is because of the action (and inaction) of nations like the United States, China, and India. These nations emit large amounts of carbon, accounting for about 60% of the world’s emissions as a whole. The Maldives contributes only a tiny fraction to this number but is deeply affected by the carbon emissions of other nations. The Maldives is certainly a victim of climate change, and there are many perpetrators. Individual nations need to be held accountable for the effects of climate change, including the tragic destruction of the Maldivian national identity, culture, property, and sense of home. For this reason, Maldivians should be granted a refugee status that is somewhat political as a way to hold others accountable. This is an environmental disaster, but it is not without human apathy, destruction, and slander. In Geneva in 1951, the Maldives asked in a conference to be given a new definition for political refugee, as the description of the time period did not suit their needs or properly explain their circumstance. Over 70 years later, the international community has not pursued status, but Maldivian people have continued to suffer at the hands of greedy international emitters. These nations do not curb their emissions in time to save a nation they are destroying with their lack of concerned action.
The Maldives is arguably the first and most significant victim of climate change, yet they do not have any significant contribution to the problem. In less than 100 years, only a couple generations, they stand little chance of being above water. This “Small Island Developing State” could be the real-life version of the mythical City of Atlantis. Attempting to go carbon neutral by 2020 with a very small GDP and few resources, the Maldives asks the political question: “if we can change to make a sustainable future with so little, why can other nations who have so many more resources not do the same?” Without hope of ever regaining a homeland, the Maldives’ people will migrate as refugees whose status and future location have yet to be determined. This terrible injustice deserves to be met with respect and recompense or reparations. There are several possible solutions that would be respectful of the trauma involved in permanently losing one’s nation, and hold major emitters accountable for the damage they have directly caused. One option is requiring large emitter nations to pool money together and buy another island that is bigger and less low lying than the Maldives, allowing the Maldives to maintain their status as a sovereign state, but relocate as a nation. The second, more plausible option is for major emitters to accept refugees from the Maldives into their nations based on the amount they emit. The greater the emissions, the more refugees a nation could accommodate. This scenario would not allow for Maldivian people to continue in their native cultural tradition but it would not require the Maldives people to build a new nation on a recently acquired land as in my first scenario. Both of these options must be paired with a serious commitment to lower carbon emissions, otherwise they would be treating the symptoms of a larger problem. The Maldives is arguably the first nation to be this intensely victimized by climate change, but other nations will undoubtedly face similar dilemmas. The Maldives is a serious warning of the atrocities soon to affect all human life. If we do not change our apathetic ways, the Maldives will be the first in a series of human atrocities that touch the whole world.
Sophia Vos is a student in the School of International Service and the Kogod School of Business class of 2019. She can be contacted at
All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.


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