Climate change discourse: Critical implications for small island developing states

Climate change usually reaches the public fore when desolate events like Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 bring forth record destruction. Media exposure of the climate debate is also triggered by events such as last September’s UN Climate Summit and People’s March in New York. Climate change is no more a debate as contrary to this calculated behaviour; it is a daily material and discursive reality for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Yes, during the life span of Typhoon Yolanda, essential infrastructure in the Philippines suffered colossal damages displaying how vulnerable coastal communities are to the increasing frequency and strength of climatic events. However, we must dissipate this common one-dimensional view that island vulnerability is the sole product of climate change as entrenched social constructs and discourses perpetuate the material and subjective limitations of SIDS.


As Magistro and Roncali (2001) argue, islands and their communities are appropriated by discourse and science due to their place in popular imaginations, representing the most immediate effects of climate change that simplify a complex issue and silence particular places and people. Island communities are not passive victims without agency as portrayed by popular media and climate change discourse. Population mobility is inherent in island culture, both presently in response to socio-economic pressures such as employment and education as well as historically with Polynesian migration in response to ecological change. Regrettably, popular climate change discourse frames migration through the term ‘climate refugee’, as a failure to adapt. Lazrus (2012) accentuates how the Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 does not currently offer protection or acknowledge the term ‘climate refugee’.


The surge in this popular portrayal of island communities is triggered by an evidence-hungry climate crisis and policy debate that works as truth about sea level rise whilst disregarding local cultures and resilience. According to Farbotko & Lazrus, (2012:383) this cognitive dissonance constructs a specific occidental ‘crisis of nature’ that essentially relegates alternative subjectivities to the periphery. Independently of the good intentions of international NGOs, research institution, or journalists – they form part of an entrenched fluidity of inclusion and exclusion power claims that damage island communities. Island communities’ role as political abstractions of climate change effects benefit the global environmental purpose in detriment to their agency and resilience. In Farbokto’s and Lazrus’ words (2012:386) “ The image of the climate refugee is sustained as a sort of victim-commodity, providing news value, political point-scoring, and a human embodiment of climate change ‘evidence’ for western environmental activist concerned with saving the planet.” Dominating discourse perpetuates a pseudo-procrastinating rationality in the west as individuals witness climate change as something happing on tropical islands and arctic ice, but not in their subjective realities. The power relations concealed within popular discourse replicate the unjust reality that island communities will be the first negatively affected by global warming, whereas their contribution to the problem was insignificant.



The reduction of island communities to ‘laboratories’ for the ‘greater good’ is not novel, as pacific island nations were subject to high levels of radiation due to nuclear bomb testing during the Cold War. Insight into the politics of climate change illustrates a whole system of interwoven constructions and systemic power relations at the institutional and discourse levels that exacerbate the vulnerability SIDS already have due to their geographical characteristics. The term ‘climate refugee’ connotes important human rights issues, reflecting island communities as a ‘canary in the coalmine’ reality were once these communities lose their sovereign land to sea-level rise, climate change will be an undeniable fact. The institutional and discursive silencing of SIDS subjectivities is counterintuitive as the majority of the global population is concentrated along coasts and thus would benefit from some of the concerns and experiences island communities have to offer. Decision makers must acknowledge that vulnerability is not just a product of climate variability if not of structural inadequacies and discursive constructs that entrench vulnerability.


David Prieto is a Columbia University Master of Science in Sustainability Management 2015 Candidate and current CUCSD COP 20 Delegation Member.



Further References

  • Farbotko C, McGregor HV. (2010) “Copenhagen, climate science, and the emotional geographies of climate change” Australian Geographer 41(2): 159-166
  • Lazrus, H. (2012) “Sea Change. Island Communities and Climate Change” Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 285-301
  • Magistro J, Roncoli C. (2001) “Anthropological perspectives and policy implementations for Climate Change Research” Climate Research 19(1): 91-96