Abandoning Paradise: Climate change and rising sea levels are producing stronger storms and beach erosion which are altering food, invading freshwater reservoirs and changing local cultures in the Pacific islands. Image: Christopher Michel/Flickr
HONOLULU — The village where Christina Deeley was born in the Marshall Islands is disappearing, bit by bit.
When she visits her family in the Laura community on the islands' Majuro atoll, Hawaii resident Deeley, 34, sees many changes confronting natives. The beach has receded by several feet. Cemeteries once located at the end of the town have vanished. Fish are becoming more scarce and fresh water polluted.
Deeley's mother, Maria de Brum, 57, still lives in Laura and wants to stay. But Deeley believes it's just a matter of time before the family matriarch will be forced to do what many others from the islands have already done. They've moved to the United States.
There's an exodus underway from Pacific Island nations to America, one driven by multiple factors, according to island leaders and migrants. People relocating to Hawaii and other states say they've come for better jobs and health care. But there's also a less recognized but unmistakable contributor, Deeley explained: climate change.
"It's hard to pinpoint migration as an effect of climate change," Deeley said. But movement from her native village is occurring in part because Laura's economy and traditional lifestyle have been warped by rapid environmental changes.
"We can no longer find enough fish to feed our families. We're no longer able to secure enough fresh water like we were before," Deeley said as she and other island immigrants gathered for a meeting at the University of Hawaii. "That way, if you think about it and take it a step further, you will see the connection between climate change and migration."
Tiny nations in Micronesia are among the places most threatened by the impacts of climate change. Many lie just a few feet above sea level, and would be submerged if waters rise by between 3 and 6 feet by 2100, as experts have said is possible. Already, stronger storms and beach erosion are altering food, invading freshwater reservoirs and changing local cultures.
Based on the number of residents expected to be living on the affected islands in 2050, between 665,000 and more than 1.7 million people might choose to leave or be compelled to migrate, said John Campbell, an associate professor and a climate change migration expert at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.
"The numbers could conceivably be quite high," Campbell said as he met with island leaders in Honolulu. "Then the question is, where do they go?"
On some islands, people might be able to move to higher ground, Campbell said. But "if the entire country is made of atolls, then you might have to have the whole country have to relocate," he said.
U.S. is 'first choice' for migrants
The United States will be the first choice for relocation for many Pacific Island residents who migrate, experts said.
The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau have an agreement with the United States that allows island residents to travel to and live in America. Known as the Compact of Free Association, in exchange, it gives the United States control over access to the waters around the island countries.
For years, island residents have come to the United States temporarily for education and better health care. Those familiar with migration patterns believe now more people will stay permanently.
"There's no question that the overflow is going to happen into the U.S., Hawaii being first," said Tony de Brum, minister in assistance to the president of the Marshall Islands. He is Christina Deeley's cousin.
Hawaii, because of its proximity to Micronesia and its similar Pacific Island culture, already is a popular destination for those seeking to migrate. But there isn't any plan to deal with what could be a much larger inflow, said Hawaii Sen. J. Kalani English (D).
"We have never dealt with this kind of situation before," English said. "We're going to have to look at all sorts of policies," including keeping adequate food supplies. Hawaii imports much of its food.