Creating space for action: options for small island states to cope with global environmental change




Maas, A.
Carius, A.


Creating space for action: options for small island states to cope with global environmental change




Government Office for Science UK


During the climate negotiations in Cancun 2010, limiting global warming to 2°C compared with pre-industrial levels became an internationally agreed target. The small island states called for an even lower level of warming of 1.5°C in 2009 (Wong, 2011). Considering either of them as unrealistic would be a poor excuse for not even trying (Anderson and Brows, 2010). However, not preparing for the situation when these targets are missed is not an option either.

This paper is a review of the options available for small island states to adapt to global environmental change and particularly to climate change. The review is conducted for the UK Government Office of Science (GoS) project on migration and global environmental change– thus, special emphasis will be placed on the question of migration. It builds upon and complements another extensive report on environmental and non-environmental drivers of migration commissioned by the GoS and produced by John Connell2, hence this paper focuses on developing policy options with regard to migration and environmental change to avoid duplication.

Intentionally, it thereby does not focus only on migration in order to avoid creating a ‘slippery slope’ argument (see Rizzo and Whitman, 2003), that is by focusing particularly on migration becoming deterministic and silencing options other than migration. Indeed, during the recent debate of the UN Security Council on climate change and security on 20 July 2011, several representatives including the president of Nauru as a spokesperson for the Pacific small island states (PSIDS) and other island states who associated with the statement essentially stated that they want to avoid migrating (UNSC, 2011). Hence, focusing only on migration and thinking of other options as well would be contrary to the interests of the ultimate intended beneficiaries, if not patronising.

In the context of this paper, ‘small island states’ generally refers to the members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which includes 39 states with a combined estimated population of 58.3 million in 2010 (UNPD, 2008). Although small island states have many commonalities (see e.g. Wong, 2011), these states vary greatly in many ways, ranging from tiny island nations, such as Nauru with just above a 20 km2 land area, to relatively large island nations, such as Papua New Guinea, which is nearly twice the size of the UK; from low-lying atoll countries such as Tuvalu and the Maldives rising just a few metres at most above sea level, to high-rising islands such as Cuba with mountain ranges rising up to 2 km above sea level; from least-developed countries like Haiti and Guinea-Bissau to highly developed countries approaching European levels, such as Barbados; from having currently high ,outmigration such as the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), to those experiencing actual immigration, such as Singapore (UNPD, 2008; UNDP, 2010).

Each of these countries is vulnerable to environmental change in a different way, and their possibilities and opportunities for migration vary as well. Given this breadth of diversity, this paper does not pretend to be comprehensive or to provide policy options fitting each of the countries in question. Much more national- and subnational-level research needs to be done to develop tailored policies for each of the countries.


Maas, A., & Carius, A. (2011). Creating space for action: options for small island states to cope with global environmental change. London : Government Office for Science UK. URL :