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May 2015

The author of the paper on which this case study is based is:  Ilan Kelman, Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo

Appeared in: The Geographical Journal: Volume 180, Issue 2

Reference: Kelman, I. (2014) No change from climate change: vulnerability and small island developing states, The Geographical Journal, 180:2, p120-129

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are a United Nations designated group of fifty two countries and territories which display similar developmental and sustainability concerns (UN, 1994 and 2005). SIDS are mainly small isolated islands, and people living in SIDS often depend on the ocean for their livelihoods. These communities are commonly understood to be among the first places that will to be very seriously affected by climate change

Although climate change is a very serious threat to SIDS, the rhetoric surrounding climate change – the way it is discussed in the media and in some academic research as singularly the greatest hazard facing the world today – overshadows many of the other development issues to which SIDS communities are exposed.  Thinking about climate change as isolated from other development issues, fails to take into account that regions vulnerable to climate change are often also vulnerable to other longstanding non-climate related development problems such as lack of access to resources and markets, exposure to natural hazards, or their relative isolation. Climate change represents a severe threat to SIDS, but rather than thinking about climate change as an isolated hazard, it is important to address a wider range of development challenges, particularly as some of these development issues can make populations more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, both now and in the long term (Solomon et al, 2009).  The study of SIDS illustrates that there are many interconnected factors that influence vulnerability, of which climate change is just one. In this context, one can explore the ways in which climate change rhetoric may actually be masking our ability to see and manage other development challenges.

At the heart of this is the concept of ‘vulnerability’: a population’s exposure to, and ability to manage the impact of, a hazardous event, such as climate change.  Part of this involves recognition that ‘natural disasters’ and ‘natural hazards’ are not necessarily the same thing. The former describes an extreme event and its effects after it has happened, while the latter recognises the idea that extreme events may not always endanger people, their homes and their livelihoods, but they do have the potential to do so. The extent to which a population is exposed to that risk is largely influenced by decisions that are made by a nationally based political system and, as a consequence, people can become less or more vulnerable respectively (Steinberg, 2000). 

In the case of SIDS, political actions may even exacerbate vulnerability to hazards such as climate change. The table below highlights some hypothetical scenarios in which the poor governance of development challenges experienced in SIDS could actually intensify the overall effects of climate change.

Aspect of climate change Direct impact A pre-existing development challenge that could worsen the impact of climate change

Sea level rise

Salinisation of freshwater sources

Insecure water supplies per capita

Rise in sea temperature

Compromised integrity of marine ecosystems

Unsustainable commercial fishing practices

Changes to storm and rainfall patterns

Increased intensity of coastal erosion

Unreliable structural coastal defences


In addition to presenting climate change as an isolated development challenge, climate change rhetoric often misrepresents climate change hazards that effect SIDS as entirely new phenomena (Nunn et al, 2007). As a result, some underlying, and often long-standing, development challenges that SIDS face are neglected and past experience of managing vulnerability is overlooked.

One of the dangers of focusing primarily on climate change related hazards is that the important question of a population’s vulnerability – a vulnerability that was often present before the science and vernacular associated with climate change were widely used in mainstream media and academic research – can be side-lined. One of the key challenges for SIDS political leaders is to ascertain why SIDS populations are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and why they do not always have adequate resources to adapt to and/mitigate climate change related hazards.

Writing about the relationship between climate change and migration in Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean, Locke (2009) argues that although climate change has been frequently cited as the primary cause of migration, climate change is often not the direct cause of migration, and that there are many other reasons why SIDS people migrate (for example, family reasons, lack of access to housing and a lack of employment opportunities). The mismatches between the cause and effect of development inequality can have a direct impact on how SIDS manage vulnerability to climate change. Opportunities to reduce vulnerability through addressing development challenges can be side-lined and there is a tendency to separate climate change from development. By addressing underlying development challenges, and tackling these at the same time as climate change, SIDS populations will be less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The ‘Build Back Better’ agenda, a tagline adopted by many groups responding in the wake of the 2004 Banda Aceh tsunami, is cited as a particularly positive approach. ‘Build Back Better’ refers to a series of initiatives that tackle longstanding development challenges, such as inequality, hazard preparedness, and disaster recovery simultaneously (Clinton 2006).

Though climate change, and its direct management, should not be ignored, the challenge for SIDS is ensuring that vulnerability to all hazards, including climate change are addressed, and that opportunities for tackling other development challenges are not overlooked. For governments and organisations outside SIDS, it is important to put climate change on the agenda alongside other hazards, and to focus on addressing the key issues that prevent SIDS from managing vulnerabilities to all hazards, including climate change. Non-SIDS may also have to recognise the diverse nature of these island nations in terms of their population size, island area, relief and geomorphology as well as how their community views differ spatially. This will allow aid to target specific development challenges, even though their vulnerability to climate change may be similar.


Barnett, J. and Campbell, J. (2010) Climate change and small island states: power, knowledge and the South Pacific, Earthscan, London

Grote, J. (2010) The changing tides of small island states discourse – a historical overview of the appearance of small island states in the international arena, Law and Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 2, p164–191

Locke, J. T. (2009) Climate change-induced migration in the Pacific Region: sudden crisis and long-term developments, The Geographical Journal, 175, p171–180

Nunn, P. D. Hunter-Anderson, R. Carson, M. T. Thomas, F. Ulm, S. and Rowland, M. J. (2007) Times of plenty, times of less: last-millennium societal disruption in the Pacific Basin, Human Ecology, 35, p385–401

Solomon, S. Plattner, G. K. Knuttic, R. and Friedlingstein, P. (2009) Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 106, p1704–1709

Steinberg, T. (2000) Acts of god: the unnatural history of natural disaster in America, OUP, New York

UN (1994) Report of the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, United Nations, New York

UN (2005) Draft Mauritius strategy for the further implementation of the programme of action for the sustainable development of small island developing states, United Nations, New York

Key Words

Climate Change
A substantial change in the long term weather patterns of a particular place.

Natural Disaster
A naturally occurring event that has already caused huge harm to people and / or the environment.

Natural Hazard
A naturally occurring event that has the potential to cause harm to people and / or the environment.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS)
Typically small and low lying island nations that tend to share similar development challenges.

The inability of local populations to deal with the impact of a naturally hazardous event

Lesson Ideas

By carrying out independent research, students can look at the particular development challenges facing one SIDS and then draw a mind map, graphically show the links between these challenges and different aspects of climate change, both causes and effects.

Challenge the students to suggest a five point plan for developed nations to help reduce SIDS’ vulnerability to climate change by tackling well known development challenges. Students should identify the potential barriers to their plans working and suggest further ways of overcoming these barriers.

Students should consider whether it is possible to define what exactly a ‘climate change refugee’ is and whether there is any evidence that some nations have genuinely already experienced this idea.


Ilan Kelman’s original article