"The environmental refugees are going to be a big deal for us in Hawaii" as well as in the mainland United States, English said. While residents of some nations under the treaty have to right to enter, he said, there will be others who also want to immigrate.
"What about Kiribati, French Polynesia, Tuvalu and the other countries that are vulnerable?" English wondered.
A widening bridge to America
The Compact of Association's link to the United States already is triggering movement within the Pacific Islands. Residents of nations that aren't part of the agreement are relocating to the Marshall Islands so that they can later migrate to the United States, de Brum said.
"That's been the traditional way of doing it," de Brum said. After living on the Marshall Islands for five years, he said, people can become citizens and then legally move to the United States.
Hawaii largely has been welcoming, said several people from families with migrants. In Arkansas, the Tyson Foods factory has hired many former residents of Micronesia's islands. But there are questions about how the United States and other nations will respond when the influx of immigrants grows larger.
"How many are really likely to take climate migrants?" asked Campbell with the University of Waikato. "Countries are really particular about who they want to migrate in.
"Climate change actually brings new problems that have no experience to deal with," he added. "We don't really know what to expect."
Some already are preparing for increased migration to Hawaii.
Mike Olap, 67, a native of Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia, moved to Honolulu in 2011. He has four children who live in the Aloha State and one in Alaska. His daughter Erlyn, 42, three years ago purchased four houses in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. She has sold some to island immigrants needing new homes, he said.
"She says the place is going to be sinking," Olap said, referring to Chuuk State.
Last decade brought accelerated change
Olap came to Hawaii primarily for access to health care. He hopes to return to his native island, but knows that conditions there are deteriorating every year. "It's a great change over there," Olap, clad in a black and yellow Hawaiian shirt, said as he sipped a Sierra Mist at a Honolulu restaurant. "It's a traumatic change of land features."
The beach has eroded, and coconut trees along the shore line "just fell off into the water," Olap said. While some of the changes started in the 1980, within the last decade "it was so rapid."
There now are storm surges almost every winter, he said. Waves now on occasion crest over a 6-foot sea wall by the house he still owns. The trade winds and the seasons also are shifting.
"People are scared," Olap said. "They're worried their land's going to be washed out."
There are similar stories on many islands, said Asterio Takesy, the Federated States of Micronesia's ambassador to the United States. At the place where he grew up in Micronesia, the waves hit the shoreline of the outer island, previously 100 feet from his home.
"It has now moved within 10 feet," Takesy said. "Most residents of small islands can tell similar stories. It's pretty clear climate change-induced sea-level rise will exacerbate these in the future."
Simultaneously, he said, saltwater intrusion compromises the ability to grow food and can contaminate groundwater. Water in a well near his childhood home now must be boiled before use. The oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide and becoming more acidic, he said, which weakens the shells of mollusks and other sea creatures. This has hurt fisheries.
"Ultimately, our food security is threatened," Takesy said. "The inescapable fact is that climate migration is going to become a worldwide phenomenon," he added. "It now appears we in the Pacific Islands are becoming some of the first to face it."