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Last Updated on 23/12/2020

Updated: May 2020

For most of us, tropical islands are the ultimate escape. They’re paradise – luxury and romance rolled into one. However, the reality is they’re far from perfection. For the likes of the South Pacific Islands, the Maldives and many others, climate change is becoming a very serious threat to these small island nations. 

Beyond the comfort of the resorts, many small island countries are sinking into the waves as the rising sea levels threaten to consume them. It’s only a matter of time before atoll nations, including Tuvalu and the Maldives, start to deplete in size, displacing inhabitants and destroying livelihoods. 

Here’s how climate change is affecting small island nations and what we as travellers can do about it:

Small island nations epitomise tropical luxury

island nations - Fiji

To many, the small island nation of Fiji epitomises the perfect island escape with its tropical palm trees, white sandy beaches and clear blue waters. It’s a picture we’re all familiar with and have doubtlessly seen on a poster or billboard advertising a slice of heaven served up “just for you”. To most of us, a place like that is a treat which scarcely even seems tangible until you’ve been.

Tropical island escapes are promoted as tiny pockets of perfection in a busy world. Where relaxation takes on a new meaning, and where, for most visitors, your only concern is deciding whether to snorkel or sunbathe that day. It’s bliss, and don’t we all know it.

In recent years, tourism has become Fiji’s biggest industry and it’s one of the fastest-growing sectors of the world’s economy. In 2017 a record of 842,884 tourists visited the country. This trend isn’t just isolated in Fiji. In the same year, the Maldives reported a staggering 1.3 million visitors, and a further 350,000 tourists holidayed in the Seychelles.

For these island escapes and their visitors, tourism (if done responsibly) is mutually beneficial. It both fuels the economy and provides business and revenue for the locals, and we get a precious few weeks of luxurious bliss and relaxation before it’s time for us to head home to our busy lives. It doesn’t feel possible that idyllic islands like these could be under threat but the sad truth is they are.

Climate change spells trouble in paradise

the maldives beach and sea

To most of us, our island life experience is merely fleeting. Before long the calls of our real lives and responsibilities become too deafening to ignore so we drift back home with groans of regret that we couldn’t stay longer. Our island stay becomes nothing more than a series of fond memories, stories to tell, and a handful of Instagram-worthy photographs.

Because our lives are based elsewhere, these islands nations remain a peaceful parallel world to us, but for the locals, it’s a different story. It’s not just a rise in tourism which Fiji, the Maldives and the Seychelles have in common. Sadly, like many other island nations, they are plagued by the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change. For many residents of these islands, the future of their homes and livelihoods hang in the balance.

In Fiji, they are already paying the price as some families have been forced to evacuate their homes and settle further inland. According to the World Bank, over the next decade, Fiji will have to spend about $4.5 billion to combat climate change in the South Pacific, including transportation systems, education, housing and health services.

Some of the world’s smallest countries are in a full-blown war with the ocean that threatens to consume them. For the Solomon Islands, it has reached a critical level as the water rising seven millimetres a year since 1994 has caused five islands to be submerged already. With this becoming a very real possibility for all these island nations, they are doing all they can to combat it. The Maldives is currently working to build new islands, and Cape Verde has made the switch to renewable energy.

But not every island is lucky enough to have the necessary funds to fight the oncoming tide. Despite its popularity with tourists, it has been reported that the Seychelles lacks the economic resources to invest in the necessary infrastructure to prevent itself from sinking.

We have a global responsibility

island nations - the maldives

At this moment in time, we’ve reached a crossroads. How we decide to act now will design the outcome of our future. Climate change is a global responsibility, not just for these island nations. We can no longer be apathetic while we let those with the most to lose fight the same battles that we will all be fighting eventually. 

Unfortunately, the future looks far from bright when countries like the US and China (the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases) show little interest in tackling the problem – it doesn’t help that a climate change denier sits in the White House…

Climate change affects us all whether you believe in it or not. Rising sea levels are just the tip of the melting iceberg of what’s in store, but for some small island nations, that’s already enough to destroy homes and lives. If these pockets of paradise, these island escapes are to continue to exist then we need to be more proactive about protecting them.

How you can help combat climate change

fiji at sunset

Travelling isn’t always associated with being eco-friendly, and with the attraction of long haul flights to far-flung places, you can see why. Fear not, sustainable travel doesn’t require you to hang up your wanderlust boots to save the planet. There are plenty of ways to make travelling greener: 

  • Support these small island nations in any way you can. Donate to charities and projects that are fighting against rising sea levels.  
  • Visit these island nations. Flying doesn’t exactly help your carbon footprint but a lot of these tropical destinations rely heavily on tourism to fund their economy. Also, try to book your accommodation and activities with small, family-run businesses. 
  • Pack light for your trip, it’s that simple! Not only does a lighter suitcase mean less to lug about but it’s also better for the environment. The fewer kilos you take, the less CO2 the aircraft emits. It may seem small but a little goes a long way.
  • Maximise your trip abroad. Try to avoid flying for short weekend getaways and instead combine them to make one big holiday. 
  • Instead of flying for short trips away to closer destinations, consider using alternative transport like trains or ferries. Check out this guide to the ten best train journeys in the world for some serious wanderlust inspiration. 
  • Use public transport on holiday instead of hiring a car. Not only is this greener but can also make the act of travelling more adventurous and fun as you increase your chances of immersing yourself in the country and culture. You can read about my experience of travelling from London to Barcelona by bus here. 
  • Offset your carbon when you fly. Yes, you still produce CO2 when you travel but you can pay a company to invest in a project that reduces your carbon emissions elsewhere. Find out how to offset your emissions effectively here.

Green tips for when you’re not on the road

island nations - fiji

  • Consider car-sharing, cycling or public transport instead of driving on your commute to work.
  • Use energy-efficient light bulbs and switch off all electrical items when they’re not in use.
  • Recycle as much as possible. Another big threat to island nations is plastic waste that ends up in the oceans. You can do this while travelling too and try to reduce your single-use plastic waste by packing reusable essentials and solid toiletries. 
  • Register to vote and then go out and vote! Make your voice heard, and fight to have politicians that represent your views in office. Make sure climate change is being talked about in your area.
  • Use your social media platform to share stories and spread the word. The more people know about climate change, the effects, and the measures we can all take to try to reverse or soften them, the bigger the chance we have at succeeding.