VICTORIA, Seychelles — Climate change can often seem like something that will happen in the distant future to people living in faraway places. But what if you live in one those faraway places and the future has already arrived?
“We are seeing the early effects of climate change,” said Rolph Payet a leading environmental expert, special advisor to the Seychelles’ president and Nobel laureate in 2007, alongside Al Gore in 2007 for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
On his fingers Payet checked off a list of impacts already hitting the Indian Ocean archipelago: warming oceans, rising sea levels and shifting unpredictable rain patterns.
“Our concern is that we are moving to a point of no return where the climate goes down a slide that you cannot stop. We are not far away from this tipping point,” he warned.
85,000 people live in the Seychelles, the vast majority on Mahé, the largest of the 115 islands. Its interior is made up of soaring granite peaks tumbling with thick jungle and fresh waterfalls but most of the people, their homes, shops, businesses, hotels, roads and even the airport are squeezed into a narrow coastal strip just a meter or two above the clear calm Indian Ocean waters.
When a massive tsunami hit Asia in 2004 the tidal aftershocks rolled across the Indian Ocean as far as Africa’s east coast. The waves met little resistance in the Seychelles where the capital Victoria was submerged in shallow seawater.
The waves washed around a miniature silvery replica of London’s Big Ben clocktower that stand’s at the little city’s heart and lapped up against the gates of State House.
“Rising sea levels are the biggest threat to the islands,” Payet told GlobalPost.
Coral islands will be most dramatically affected by sea level rises as their palm-fringed beaches and luxury resorts sink beneath the seas.
Last October the government of the coral atolls that make up the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives donned scuba gear to hold a cabinet meeting underwater. Their country is on average just two meters above sea level so the dramatic stunt was designed to draw attention to the Maldives’ inevitable demise if global warming continues.
“We're now actually trying to send our message, let the world know what is happening, and what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked,” President Mohamed Nasheed told journalists after he resurfaced.
Even high-rising granite islands such as Mahe in the Seychelles will not be safe. “On the granitic islands the impact of sea level rise is more subtle,” said Payet. “An island does not have to be underwater to be impossible to live on.”
Just a few millimeters of sea water leaching into the water table affects agriculture and water resources rendering the island uninhabitable. “Already we’re starting to see those changes where there is erosion of the beaches and property is being lost, where saltwater is coming into the groundwater,” he said.
Islands disappearing beneath dramatically rising seas caused by melting polar ice caps are a longer-term threat to the Seychelles and other island nations but warming waters are taking their toll now.
As the sea’s temperature creeps upwards the water expands causing small sea level rises, fish such as tuna shift their patterns and migrate out of territorial waters reducing national income and the ‘bleaching’ of temperature-sensitive coral damages reefs threatening biodiversity and tourism.
Payet calls the bleaching a signal coming from the ocean. “[Now we are seeing] the first mass coral bleaching ever recorded in the Seychelles,” he added.
“By the time the world reacts [to climate change] it will be very expensive to adapt, but they will react because these things that are happening on the islands will also happen on the mainland and in developed countries as well,” said Payet.
But will the rich world react quickly enough? The Seychelles and other small island nations cannot stop the sea from rising or cut greenhouse gas emissions to a globally sustainable level, and while the world fiddles at inconclusive meetings such as Copenhagen these are the places on the frontline of climate change.
“We have already had islands disappear in the Pacific, not countries yet but definitely islands," said Payet. "It’s a question of survival for the small islands and many of the larger countries don’t understand this.”
Editor's note: The photo has been changed to accurately reflect the issues issues in the story.