IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

16.6 Conclusions: implications for sustainable development

The economic, social and environmental linkages between climate change and sustainable development, and their implications for poverty alleviation, have been highlighted in various studies (e.g., Hay et al., 2003; Huq and Reid, 2004) and these are highly relevant to small islands. Most recently, one of the ‘key findings’ of a major study suggested that climate change poses such a serious threat to poor, vulnerable developing countries that if left unchecked, it will become a “…major obstacle to continued poverty reduction” (Stern, 2007). Indeed, it is true to say that many low-lying small islands view climate change as one of the most important challenges to their achievement of sustainable development. For instance, in the Maldives, Majeed and Abdulla (2004) argue that sea-level rise would so seriously damage the fishing and tourism industries that GDP would be reduced by more than 40%.

In another atoll island setting, Ronneberg (2004) uses the Marshall Islands as a case study to explain that the linkages between patterns of consumption and production, and the effects of global climate change, pose serious future challenges to improving the life of the populations of small island developing states. Based on this case study, Ronneberg (2004) proposes a number of innovative solutions including waste-to-energy and ocean thermal energy conversion systems, which could promote the sustainable development of some small islands and at the same time strengthen their resilience in the face of climate change.

The sustainable development of small islands which are not low-lying, and there are many of these, is also likely to be seriously impacted by climate change, although perhaps not to the same extent as the low islands. For example, Briguglio and Cordina (2003) have shown that climate change impacts on the economic development of Malta are likely to be widespread, affecting all sectors of the economy, but particularly tourism, fishing and public utilities.

Sperling (2003), in an examination of poverty and climate change, contends that the negative impacts of climate change are so serious that they threaten to undo decades of development efforts. He also argues that the combined experience of many international organisations suggests that the best way to address climate change impacts is by integrating adaptation measures into sustainable development strategies. A similar argument is advanced by Hay et al. (2003), in the context of the Pacific small island states, who suggest that the most desirable adaptive responses are those that augment actions which would be taken even in the absence of climate change, due to their contributions to sustainable development. Adaptation measures may be conducive to sustainable development, even without the connection with climate change. The link between adaptation to climate change and sustainable development, which leads to the lessening of pressure on natural resources, improving environmental risk management, and increasing the social well-being of the poor, may not only reduce the vulnerability of small islands to climate change, but also may put them on the path towards sustainable development.

Mitigation measures could also be mainstreamed in sustainable development plans and actions. In this regard, Munasinghe (2003) argues that, ultimately, climate change solutions will need to identify and exploit synergies, as well as seek to balance possible trade-offs, among the multiple objectives of development, mitigation, and adaptation policies. Hay et al. (2003) also argue that while climate change mitigation initiatives undertaken by Pacific island countries will have insignificant consequences climatologically, they should nevertheless be pursued because of their valuable contributions to sustainable development.

But what is small island sustainable development about? Kerr (2005) prefaces this question by noting that sustainable development is often stated as an objective of management strategies for small islands, though relatively little work has explicitly considered what sustainable development means in this context. She argues that the problems of small scale and isolation, of specialised economies, and of the opposing forces of globalisation and localisation, may mean that current development in small islands may be unsustainable in terms of its longevity. On the other hand, models of sustainable development may have something to offer islands in terms of internal management of resources, although the islands may have limited control over exogenous threats or the economic drivers of development (Kerr, 2005). In this context, the development of adaptation measures in response to climate change may provide an appropriate avenue to integrate both local and global forces towards island development that is sustainable, providing that local communities are involved (Tran, 2006).

Another positive factor is that many small islands have considerable experience in adapting to climate variability. In the case of Cyprus, for example, Tsiourtis (2002) explains that the island has consistently taken steps to alleviate the adverse effects arising from water scarcity, which is likely to be one of the important effects of climate change. This experience already features in development strategies adopted by Cyprus. A similar argument has also been made by Briguglio (2000) with regard to the Maltese Islands, referring to the islands’ exposure to climatic seasonal variability which, historically, has led to individuals and administrations taking measures associated with retreat, accommodation and protection strategies. For example, residential settlements in Malta are generally situated away from low-lying coastal areas, and primitive settlements on the island tended to be located in elevated places. Maltese houses are built of sturdy materials, and are generally able to withstand storms and heavy rains. Temperatures and precipitation rates in Malta change drastically between mid-winter and mid-summer, and this has led to the accumulation of considerable experience in adaptation to climate variability.

However, as mentioned earlier, small islands face many constraints in trying to mainstream climate change into their sustainable development strategies. These include their very limited resources, especially given the indivisibilities of overhead expenditures and hidden costs involved in adaptation measures, particularly in infrastructural projects. Another problem may relate to possible social and/or political conflicts, particularly to do with land use and resources (Westmacott, 2002), though not exclusively (Lane, 2006). Notwithstanding this observation, most decisions regarding the critical issues of land use, energy use and transportation infrastructure in small islands will not have any meaningful influence on the rate and magnitude of climate change worldwide. However, they may have a significant moral and ethical impact in the climate change arena, as well as contributing to reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and to small island sustainable development.