Small Islands and 1.5°C- A Special Issue in Regional Environmental Change

20 November 2018

Written by
Adelle Thomas, Carl-Friedrich Schleussner

Climate Analytics scientists have served as guest editors for a special issue in the academic journal regional environmental change. They’ve overseen the editorial process of 15 papers that have contributed to the literature base on 1.5°C and small islands for the 1.5°C Special Report.

Small island communities have long realised that rising temperatures and changing climate pose great risks to their livelihoods, infrastructure and – for many – their very survival. And it was small islands, along with other vulnerable countries, who led the push for a lower warming limit of 1.5°C, now at the heart of the Paris Agreement, and the focus of the latest Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This highly anticipated report on 1.5°C confirms that small islands face disproportionately higher risks from climate change. A Special Issue of the acclaimed journal Regional Environment Change, co-edited by Climate Analytics scientists, contributed a number of important new studies on the key issues facing small islands, many subsequently assessed in the IPCC report.

IPCC reports assess current scientific literature and so it is imperative that there are robust, peer-reviewed studies that focus on issues that are important for SIDS. In anticipation of the need for such studies, Climate Analytics, in partnership with colleagues at University of The Bahamas and the Australian National University, developed a Special Issue in the acclaimed scientific journal Regional Environmental Change.

The latest IPCC Special Report has highlighted the differences in risks between 1.5°C and higher levels of warming and has stressed the importance of international, transformative action to limit global average temperatures. The Special Issue in Regional Environmental Change highlights challenges currently facing SIDS, increased threats at 1.5°C and overwhelming risks at higher levels of warming. Not only do climate hazards increase with higher global average temperatures, but the capacity of SIDS to endure more severe impacts is also challenged.

The Special Issue brings together contributions from a wide range of disciplines including political, social and physical science. Contributions also cover islands from all three of the major SIDS regions – Caribbean, Pacific and Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS). While developing an interdisciplinary and multi-regional Special Issue was a challenging undertaking, we find that the mix of perspectives and articles provides an integrated outlook on the critical importance of 1.5°C for SIDS.

Given the high exposure and vulnerability of SIDS to sea level rise, several articles in the Special Issue focus on coastal impacts and protection. Biondi and Guannel provide an example of a toolkit to assess coastal vulnerability and sea level rise impacts while Monioudi et al. assess how critical transportation infrastructure in coastal zones will be affected by rising sea levels. Continuing in this vein, Giardino et al. assess the effectiveness of disaster risk reduction strategies against future risks posed by sea level rise. Highlighting how the SIDS experience can offer guidance for other regions, Jamero et al. explore adaptation strategies to reduce vulnerability to extreme tidal flooding in the Philippines, and Albert et al. investigate coastal community relocation in Alaska and Solomon Islands.

Water availability is also a significant issue for SIDS and Karnauskas et al. assess changes in freshwater availability due not only to climate change but also to socio-economic development. They find that increased drying will affect the Caribbean in particular which has effects on other sectors. This is illustrated by Donk et al. who highlight that decreased water availability will negatively affect hydropower in Suriname. In addition to reduced availability of water, higher temperatures have impacts on the agricultural sector. These effects are underscored in contributions by Rhiney et al. and Lallo et al. who focus on major crops and livestock in Jamaica-finding concerning risks at 1.5C that increase with higher levels of warming.

The alarming impacts of tropical cyclones in SIDS has made further studies on these storms of utmost importance. Burgess et al. respond to this call by studying the relationship between economic damages caused by tropical cyclones and sea-surface temperature patterns, which allows for forecasting of future damages as global temperatures increase.

A number of contributions go beyond bio-physical impacts to explore the socio-economic, political and cultural factors that affect the ability of SIDS to exist in a 1.5⁰C warmer world. Ourbak and Magnan detail the strong advocacy of SIDS in including the 1.5⁰C limit in the Paris Agreement and highlight upcoming challenges facing these countries in international policy arenas.

Mycoo assesses the feasibility of current adaptation strategies across a range of sectors in Caribbean SIDS- finding that existing approaches are likely to be inadequate as temperatures rise. Barrowman and Kumar stress that the current focus of international funding agencies on biophysical adaptation is insufficient to address the complex political, institutional and socio-economic factors that affect vulnerability in small islands. Finally, Thomas and Benjamin tackle the much-discussed issue of loss and damage and emphasize that SIDS face a number of obstacles in assessing, evaluating and addressing climate impacts.

Many of the articles in the Special Issue were included in the IPCC Special Report and have helped to strengthen the scientific literature specific to SIDS. We thank all the contributors, many of whom are based at institutions in SIDS, and are confident that robust scientific studies focused on SIDS will continue.