The situation of small island states has received considerable attention as a potentially dramatic example of climate change-induced displacement. Scientific studies, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPPC), indicate that sea levels are rising and will continue to do so.

Already in 2001, the IPPC highlighted that small island states are among the areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, although they are responsible for less than one per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The IPPC drew attention to the fact that land loss from sea-level rise on atolls and low limestone islands could disrupt virtually all economic and social sectors. In such a case, the panel warned, potential options for the population may be limited to migration.

The prospect of sea-level rise threatens small low-lying islands in unique ways. Average elevation on Tuvalu and the Maldives Islands, for example, is only about one metre, and therefore leaves these countries at risk of both sudden-onset disasters—such as tsunamis triggered by earthquakes—and of rising sea levels resulting from global warming.

While the possibility that these islands will ‘sink’ or be inundated by rising sea levels has generated much attention, such events will not occur overnight. Instead, it is likely that global warming will create a multitude of problems—damage and destruction of coral reefs, increasing salinity of water, decreased food production, harm to the tourist industry—that will lead people to leave their islands long before they are submerged by rising sea-levels. In fact, the tipping point for migration and displacement is considered more likely to result from declining availability of fresh water than from flooding. An ominous sign of this was the declaration of a national emergency in Tuvalu in September 2011 due to continuing drought, critically low community water supplies, and damaged desalination units.

The particular vulnerability of small islands underlines the need for mitigation measures to reduce the likelihood of sea-level rise, for community preparedness and contingency planning initiatives, and for governments to increase their capacity to plan, monitor and respond effectively to climate change-induced displacement. Small island vulnerability also underscores the importance of looking at adaptation measures which could enable populations to remain where they are—though such measures may be prohibitively expensive. It also points to a need to consider scenarios in which large-scale relocation may be necessary, although the history of population relocations in the Pacific region, for example, is not a positive one.

The fundamental question is whether these situations will be met by ad hoc reactions, or by a coherent international response designed to respect the rights of the affected populations, including the right to their national identity.