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Saving Small Island Developing Countries
ONC Editorial

Nov 18, 2023

Climate Change poses an especially significant threat to small, relatively poor countries situated on islands. Here’s what we can do about it. (The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author, Annie Llombart.)

Big Picture

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are the keepers of the oceans. Composed of over 30 nations spread all over the globe, SIDS own over 30 percent of our oceans. Ocean territories make up, on average, about 90 percent of SIDS’ mass. The rising temperatures, ocean bleaching, ocean acidification, sea level rise, overfishing and many other environmental factors are putting these regions at risk of substantial damage.

Operative Definitions

  1. Small Island Developing States: A group of countries characterized by their individual geographies. Located in the Caribbean and South China Seas and in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, these countries face very specific and unique economic, social and environmental challenges. 
  2. Coral Bleaching: When the water is too warm, corals expel the algae living in them, causing them to turn white and die.
  3. Mass Migrations: When unlivable conditions caused by extreme environmental conditions force people to migrant in large numbers, seeking refuge. 
  4. Sea Level Rise: The level of the oceans and seas rising due to the polar regions melting.
  5. Climate Refugee Visa: A visa that considers climate migrant a refugee status.
  6. Gross Domestic Product (GDP):  A measure of the economic output of a country.

Important Facts and Statistics

  1. The United States has many territories that fall into the SIDS category, including American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in addition to nine other unpopulated territories and two disputed ones.
  2. Hawaii and Florida, given their geography and topography, face similar challenges to SIDS.
  3. Coral reefs provide over $375 billion per year in goods and services to global communities.
  4. Some SIDS, such as Kiribati in Australia, have begun purchasing land in larger continents to harbor their population when their home territories are no longer habitable.
  5. There are 28 World Heritage properties located on SIDS. 
  6. A one-meter sea level rise would make the Maldives, a SIDS in South East Asia, disappear from the map.
    Tobago has already lost over 66 percent of its corals due to coral bleaching. 

Five-Point Plan

(1) Promote tourism in SIDS. Many SIDS depend significantly on tourism. Promoting travel to these countries would increase their capacity to adapt to climate change. Not to mention, they are worth seeing before their potential disappearance. 

(2) Implement a climate refugee visa. Getting ahead of the problem and providing a legal and orderly pathway for migration will prevent disputes and diminish the potential for injuries and death. It will also allow for control over who is coming into the U.S. and will mitigate the amount of illegal aliens by providing a legal alternative. 

(3) Reduce waste at home. Plastic pollution and other waste that ends up in the oceans is a main threat to these ecosystems and countries. By simply reducing waste production and disposing of waste properly, waste pollution could be nationally reduced, and oceans could be kept much cleaner.

(4) Recognize the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR). The principle of CBDR rests on the idea that developed nations have more to do with creating the current, international environmental problems that the world faces, such as ocean pollution and overflowing landfills. It establishes that, although all countries and states are responsible for supporting the fight against worldwide environmental devastation, not everyone is equally responsible for the problems that have been caused. 

(5) Become more involved in international processes to help develop SIDS. Developing SIDS in a sustainable manner will ensure that they are able to thrive in their home countries, protecting their cultures and livelihoods and preventing a global mass migration event. All SIDS combined have a GDP of $575.3 billion, where the GDP per capita ranges from $51,000 in Singapore to $850 in Comoros. This, by U.S. standards, means that a small investment can go a long way in developing essential infrastructure and economic necessities, such as renewable energy and roads. Another major strategic benefit of supporting SIDS is that, since there are 38 SIDS UN members (out of a total of 193), they represent a large voting population, thus supporting their countries could significantly benefit those that choose to do so in the future. 

Why This Initiative is Important

The United States has an interest in saving SIDS. First, failing to act would lead to the economic devastation of both U.S. territories and other SIDS. Second, SIDS all over the globe provide valuable resources for biology research, both in terms of ecology and for the development of medicine. Third, SIDS have a unique culture, are a great tourist destination and provide significant economic exports and services around the globe. Fourth, not doing anything about the potential loss of SIDS would plausibly result in a mass migration of over 63.2 million people, which will have a drastic impact on both those migrating and those living in the countries that these people migrate to. 


The following student(s) worked on this nonpartisan proposal: Annie Llombart: University of California, Santa Cruz graduate.


Esptein, Charlotte. “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.” Common but Differentiated Responsibilities - International Environmental Law, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2022,

GRID. “Tourism in SIDS: Grid-Arendal.” GRID,

UNWTO. “SMALL ISLANDS DEVELOPING STATES (SIDS).” United Nations World Tourism Organisation. 2022.

UN. “International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS).” United Nations, 2014.

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