By Kathleen Ackert, Siena College
Kathleen studied abroad in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
From the mid to late 20th century, the variability in the Earth’s climate has been a cornerstone of both scientific debate and water cooler conversation. There have been many efforts to regulate human activity, waste and emissions in order to achieve a climate that fluctuates naturally instead of in response to anthropogenic factors. Climate change has created a wide variety of different but pronounced effects all over the world. Many of these effects are negative, such as the rising of the ocean in response, which will eventually cause several island nations to cease to exist. Something needs to change in order to slow the warming of the Earth. Unfortunately, climate change discourse and policy seems to be centered on the comfort of developed countries instead of the real problems at hand: human lives in developing countries and the lack of conservation of Earth’s biodiversity.
Effects of climate change
The effects of climate change on the day-to-day lives of those in developing countries are numerous. Basic necessities such as access to clean drinking water, nutrients, sanitation management and housing are all negatively affected by the slowly rising temperature of Earth. This can be seen more specifically in the Polynesian sub-region, which is made up of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. Within the next decade, many of these islands will become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels. The island of Tuvalu is a perfect example. The island is just 26 square kilometers and five meters above sea level at its highest point (UNDP 2011). At the 58th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Saufatu Sopoanga, stated, “We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change. For a coral atoll nation, sea level rise and more severe weather events loom as a growing threat to our entire population. The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us” (Janin and Mandia 2012). While some in developed countries may be rewarded with beachfront property in a few years due to the effect of rising sea levels, those living in the Polynesian sub-region will no longer have land to live on and will be forced to relocate to other islands or countries. This will result in not only the loss of space and biodiversity, but also in cultural erosion. Those who have made the smallest contributions to the warming of Earth’s climate are often those who are the most susceptible to its effects. Climate change policy needs to be centered on those who will be impacted the most.
Biodiversity can generally be defined as the variety of life. It has been estimated that there are between three and 30 million species on Earth. In actuality, there could be over 100 million species. Biodiversity is important not only to people, but also to the health of ecosystems. Many of the most famous medicinal discoveries have come from the natural world, primarily from plants. Without biodiversity in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems, the world may lose access to potential vaccines and drugs. A healthy ecosystem performs countless tasks that make life viable. An ecosystem absorbs toxic chemicals, provides us with oxygen, fuel and clean water while also acting as a natural filtration system. For a more specific case study, the Galápagos Islands are already experiencing direct impacts of climate change. These impacts can be seen in the changes to the archipelago’s landscape that have occurred in the past 100 years. A rise in sea level, higher ocean temperatures and an increase in acidification are just a few of the phenomena that have been observed (Solomon et al. 2007).
Naturally occurring temperature events are worsening as the earth continues to warm. For example, the frequency of El Niño, a warm water current that appears off the coast of Ecuador and Peru every few years, has increased (Larrea and DiCarlo 2011). Climate change events like El Niño have greatly affected marine life, and will continue to have a negative effect unless something is done. The high specific heat capacity of water means that the ocean plays a substantial role in regulating the climate. In addition, changes in ocean temperatures due to competing currents are already changing the frequency and magnitude of rain. Warmer water contains fewer nutrients, resulting in the loss of marine life. The Galápagos Islands, one of the most biodiverse places in the world, are at serious risk.
Climate change policy
Taking into consideration all that has been observed about climate change’s detrimental effects on health, both across the world as well as in the Polynesian sub-region and Galápagos Islands, it becomes clear that climate change is an infinitely complex issue. There is perhaps no finer example of the convergence of health, climate change, and utilitarian psychology than the green concept of sustainable development. This oxymoron is the ultimate buzzword in human attempts to answer natural questions as it provides a win-win situation. Sustainable development as an idea promises that we can continue to mine the natural world for resources and new human habitats while being eco-friendly. Given the devastating effects of climate change on islanders in the South Pacific, the decline in marine life in the Galápagos Islands and the loss of biodiversity, sustainable development is unrealistic at this time. New climate change policy must be created to address the key issues of preserving biodiversity and protecting human lives in developing countries. The sooner we make these changes in policy, the sooner we will be able to adequately sustain the needs of our ever-changing world.
All opinions are solely those of the author.
Larrea, I., and Di Carlo, G. (eds.). (2011) Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of
the Galápagos Islands. WWF and Conservation International, USA.
Janin, H., and Mandia, S. (2012) Cities and Countries of the Pacific Ocean Basin. In
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United Nations Development Programme (2011). Tuvalu Millennium
Development Goals Progress Report 2010/2011. http://www.fj.undp.org/content/dam/fiji/docs/MDG_Tuvalu_2011.pdf