Two views of Kiribati Bails Out

mt notes that “Kiribati Bails Out”:

The low-lying island nation of Kiribati (formerly “Christmas Island”) is buying real estate on the larger Fiji Island and planning to move everybody out, on account of, well, you know, water.

The usual story of atolls being submerged by global warming. Or not; but that’s not the point here, so I won’t go into that. My response was

Could be a sensible solution. How does it stack up, cost-wise?

That wasn’t the reply that mt was looking for, of course, for he replied The point is not how individuals or particular groups cope so much as that the problems are already starting and getting in gear for the adaptation is happening in some quarters.

Whether or not the proposed movement is even serious is not clear; as they say Mr Tong said there had been some criticism of Kiribati’s purchase of land in Fiji, but he said its main value has been the international publicity and giving his people a sense of security so, pffft, cheap PR only perhaps.

Dscn1068-2-hump-hill

But how much would it cost? To move people from one island to another? Having pondered this fairly shallowly, I argue that if not done in a hurry the costs are near zero. I mean “true cost” or “ecological cost” or “carbon cost”, not financial cost (I trust we’re all united in the readership of this blog in despising utterly those who put finance before carbon). So they have to buy land, but all that does is transfer money from one person or group to another, so that’s ecologically free. They have to transfer people from one island to another – that’s cheap. They have to rebuild houses – but if you spread the move over 20 or 30 years that’s cheap or free too, since they were going to need rebuild, repair and maintenance anyway (possibly less time than that, looking at the pix of houses they show).

There’s a cultural problem, of course, in moving. Or at least, there could be. mt remarked Odd, coming from someone like you who lives in such a culturally and historically rich place. It would indeed be sad if all of England were abandoned, but that’s not in prospect. I’ve moved from where I grew up – Berkhamstead – and really it never occurred to me that I might actually live there when I grew up. My mother grew up in London; my father in Jamaica; neither of them, as far as I can tell, pined deeply for their birthplaces. When you want to make a point, it is easy to put up obstacles to any given action, which would all be swept away by a feather if you decided to favour the action.

[There is a small prize if you can work out the relevance of the picture to this post. I warn you the question is almost impossible, and will prove uninteresting if I ever reveal the answer.]

Refs

* Why will nobody move to Pitcairn, the Pacific island with free land?

26 thoughts on “Two views of Kiribati Bails Out”

  1. Too simplistic I think, if the land is no long effectively habitable (nor even cultivatable, if only for lack of local labour), then there’s a genuine loss there.

    [Well, clearly, there’s a “loss” in some sense from the land not being habitable. If there wasn’t, the entire question wouldn’t arise. But it is also a transfer – from habitable land to fishable water, errm, sort of. But really the question is how big a loss is it? Suppose (this is clearly unrealistic, but just for the sake of argument) that the *only* consequence of GW was SLR, and the *only* cost was relocating people, over a 50 or 100 year timespan. How expensive (in whatever sense) would that be? Compared to the opportunity cost of not emitting the CO2? -W]

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  2. WC writes: “So they have to buy land, but all that does is transfer money from one person or group to another, so that’s ecologically free. ” Ummm, no. That’s economically free. With one exception that I can think of – it’s ecologically a negative.

    [Do you mean the conversion of land from wild to inhabited is an ecological loss? Generally it is, but not always – say, irrigating desert. I’m not even sure how you could easily measure or assess it. How does my garden compare to the fens that would have been here? -W]

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  3. Hmm, where have you been living for the last, lost, 8 years?

    A statement like “So they have to buy land, but all that does is transfer money from one person or group to another, so that’s ecologically free.”

    Is just stupid. Or do you vote Tory?

    [I don’t think it is stupid. And how I vote is irrelevant to whether the statement is stupid or not. Perhaps you’d care to expand upon your argument? -W]

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  4. From Cuba to the Grenadines, scores of a high, dry, fish-surrounded and coconut tree sprouting Carribean islands remain unpeopled

    Yet not much immigration from Christms Island hereabouts

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  5. Come off it, the extra ocean is not worth anything. Fish are not limited by lack of sea to swim in.

    [That’s not quite literally true. There’s lots of ocean, yes, but shallow ocean less so. You know the obvious pictures -W]

    Moreover, there isn’t really a significant increase anyway, it’s just that the land is no longer viable. Arguably, destruction of human civilisation would be ecologically beneficial, but is this really the argument you are trying to make?

    [Actually, I pretty well agree with you first sentence, but in that case from the ecological point of view you’re shifting once piece of land out of use, to another. So again, no great harm -W]

    Broken window fallacy also seems relevant here.

    [Parable of the broken window? I don’t see why. I’m not trying to argue that the shift would be beneficial; just not obviously harmful. But if you’re on Bastiat, why ignore the opportunity cost lost of not emitting the CO2? Bastiat was indeed a lucid and superb writer, whose brilliant and witty essays and fables to this day are remarkable and devastating demolitions of protectionism and of all forms of government subsidy and control. He was a truly scintillating advocate of an unrestricted free market -W]

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  6. WC writes: “Do you mean the conversion of land from wild to inhabited is an ecological loss? Generally it is, but not always …”

    Yes, that is what I said. The transfer of money is economically ‘free’, but in most cases the selling of land will not be ecologically free. The transfer of money is an economic, not ecologic, transaction. The development of land is an ecologic event that, as you readily admit, generally is negative ecologically – i.e., it’s *not* ecologically free. So, since you admit that it is generally an ecological loss, why would you say it is ecologically free?

    Your desert exception does not really work, since there is a desert ecosystem that will be disrupted. The exception I had in mind is that there is already ecologically damaged land that can be reclaimed. Reclaiming that land is usually a net plus, though the devil is in the details.

    [Your desert exception does not really work – I think you’re showing here the same wrong, automatic mindset I see so often. Changing the landuse is certainly a transformation; it might be a loss, it might be a gain, or it might be unmeasureable or incommensurate. And it might be a big thing or a small one. Who can know? I think there’s a fair argument to be made that the ecological loss from rainforest destruction dwarfs all that we’re talking about here -W]

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  7. WC writes: “Changing the landuse is certainly a transformation; it might be a loss, it might be a gain, or it might be unmeasureable or incommensurate. “

    I don’t see how this justifies “So they have to buy land, but all that does is transfer money from one person or group to another, so that’s ecologically free.”

    [Oh, I see. Perhaps poorly expressed. I was trying to deal with the concept of the financial cost of buying the land. Perhaps it would be clearer if they were trying to move into the center of London. That would obviously be very financially expensive, but still that would just be shuffling money around -W]

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  8. If we are talking sea level rise, then we are talking the relocation of quite a lot of the world’s cities. Even over decades, it’s a bit of a stretch to call that cost negligible.

    And that assumes that developers adopt the rational approach of making sure that all new build is a decent height above sea level.

    Assuming that we value human life, then replacing coal with nuclear power is probably negative cost right now and for the past few decades. There is nothing magical about the incumbent solution that makes it cheaper than all possible alternatives.

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  9. Given that the planet could care less what happens to it, the ecosystem has been through worse than us, survived and rebounded — for me it pretty much comes down to how much am I’m willing to sacrifice economically now so as to not pass on too many debts to future generations. Assuming SLR is the only concern (it’s my main one, I guess because it’s so obviously inexorable) my sense is that relocating London, Manhattan, Miami is the lossier net present value. OTOH, it’s probably one thing that future economies would be able to absorb IF that was all they had to deal with.

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  10. Just to note that Kiribati is actually a nation composed of islands in several different groups, one of which is the Gilberts (from which the name derives). The biggest island in Kiribati is Kiritimati (Chrstmas), which is in the Line Islands.

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  11. Brandon, unfortunately there’s other and nastier stuff, e.g. loss of habitability of land in the tropics, poleward expansion of deserts, intensified hydrological cycle leading to frequent crop failures, circulation changes with similar results, ocean acidification leading to ocean ecosystem collapse, and of course it’s a longer list.

    [I agree there is other stuff; the difference is only that it is less certain that SLR (by which I don’t mean “and so should be discounted”; perhaps “is riskier” might be a better phrase); so just for the purposes of this post I was wanting to think in terms of one thing only -W]

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  12. Here in California, irrigating deserts and drylands is accompanied by various ecological nasties, in particular salt build-up and groundwater depletion, and so isn’t sustainable long-term.

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  13. Another example of Global Warming causes hang-nails and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

    Wiki:
    Natural hazards
    Cyclones can occur any time, but usually November to March; occasional tornadoes; low level of some of the islands make them very sensitive to changes in sea level.The Climate Change in the Pacific Report (2011) describes Kiribati as having a low risk of cyclones;[2] however in March 2015 Kiribati experienced flooding and destruction of seawalls and coastal infrastructure as the result of Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 cyclone that devastated Vanuatu.[3]
    Environment – current issues
    Heavy pollution in lagoon of south Tarawa atoll due to heavy migration mixed with traditional practices such as lagoon latrines and open-pit dumping; ground water at risk

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  14. More Wiki outlining how this obscure member of the Guano Islands suitable for H-Bomb testing has never been a long sustained habitat for homos:

    At Western discovery, Kiritimati was uninhabited. As on other Line Islands there might have been a small or temporary native population, most probably Polynesian traders and settlers, who would have found the island a useful replenishing station on the long voyages from the Society Islands to Hawaiʻi, perhaps as early as AD 400. This trade route was apparently used with some regularity by about AD 1000. From 1200 onwards Polynesian long-distance voyages became less frequent, and had there been human settlement on Kiritimati, it would have been abandoned in the early-mid second millennium AD. Two possible village sites and some stone structures of these early visitors have been located.[2]

    Permanent settlement started by 1882, mainly by workers in coconut plantations and fishermen but, due to an extreme drought which killed off tens of thousands of coconut palms – about 75% of Kiritimati’s population of this plant – the island was once again abandoned between 1905 and 1912.[2]

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  15. WC writes: “I think there’s a fair argument to be made that the ecological loss from rainforest destruction dwarfs all that we’re talking about here…”

    That seems irrelevant. Murder is considered a greater crime than robbery, that does not mean robbery is acceptable. Yes, rainforest destruction is ecologically harmful, but that says nothing about whether relocating tens of thousands is ecologically harmful or not.

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  16. Steve Bloom,

    I agree SLR isn’t the only issue, but it is one of the more concrete ones in terms of cause and effect. If coloring between the lines means limiting AGW to SLR, I’m saying I think it’s possible to still make a compelling policy argument for mitigation on largely economic grounds, using monotonically trending data that don’t suffer from a lot of weather noise.

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  17. This is a matter of scale.
    A hundred refugees from climate change in a world with a population of billions of people will have a tiny impact on the total. Might even be a long term net negative economic cost, as tiny remote communities face large transportation and other costs, which are often subsidized by the rest of us. Both the individual people, the global economy and the environment as a whole might be better off.
    Ten million refugees, a larger impact. No longer small remote communities, but larger and more valuable communities. More economic cost to the rest of society by bidding up the prices of land to relocate on, as well as other goods such as building materials.
    A billion refugees?
    Scale matters. Libertarians often ignore scaling effects.

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  18. Howard writes: “At Western discovery, Kiritimati was uninhabited. ”

    Wiki says:”The area now called Kiribati has been inhabited by Micronesians speaking the same Oceanic language since sometime between 3000 BC and AD 1300.”

    Kiritimati, Kiribati. What’s in a name?

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  19. Howard:

    Another example of Global Warming causes hang-nails and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

    Another example of Howard’s fondness for strawman arguments.

    AFAIK, no one has blamed any hangnails or psoriasis on AGW. In addition to SLR, though, a higher proportion of tropical storms at the upper intensity categories, and their more frequent excursion to higher latitudes, is expected.

    In an ironic update to this Stoat post, forward-looking Kiribati residents may want to consider buying land somewhere besides Fiji, which is reporting severe damage from a Category 5 cylone this weekend:

    Fiji began a massive cleanup on Monday after one of the most powerful storms recorded in the southern hemisphere tore through the Pacific island nation, flattening remote villages, cutting off communications and killing at least 10 people.

    Aid agencies warned of a widespread health crisis, particularly in low-lying areas of the country where thousands of the country’s 900,000 people live in tin shacks, after crops were wiped out and fresh water supplies blocked.

    [Indeed. I now find, looking, In early 2012, the government of Kiribati purchased the 2,200-hectare Natoavatu Estate on the second largest island of Fiji, Vanua Levu. At the time it was widely but incorrectly reported[35][36][37] that the government planned to evacuate the entire population of Kiribati to Fiji. However, in April 2013, President Tong began urging citizens to evacuate the islands and migrate elsewhere.[38] from wiki so I’m not even sure this is a real story at all -W]

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  20. “My mother grew up in London; my father in Jamaica; neither of them, as far as I can tell, pined deeply for their birthplaces. ”
    A strange comment, I grew up in Darwin and moved south at 17 YO. Pining is perhaps not the right word but I retain a deep emotional attachment to my birthplace even though I am unlikely to ever live there again.
    I feel sure, projecting my feelings, that your parents probably felt the same about their birthplaces as do you, if you really do consider it.
    Not sure I have ever bothered to mention it to my kids though, not really relevant to them, you see, as they were not born there and would lack understanding.

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  21. Kevin: Thanks for setting me straight. I led myself astray from the first OP sentence: The low-lying island nation of Kiribati (formerly “Christmas Island”) is buying real estate on the larger Fiji Island and planning to move everybody out, on account of, well, you know, water.

    The primary Island is Tarawa… a place that yielded four medals of honor in a single battle that claimed 6,000 lives in 76-hours.

    I found a few open papers, the following is a pretty comprehensive look at the erosion issues and blames more specific rather than general acts of man for the problem.
    Erosion of Tarawa

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  22. Quiz: Pyrenean coral, innit. (Send the prize to a human rights charity of your choosing in Kiribati.)

    [You have the location correct, for which I’ll be quite impressed unless you cheated. But that’s only 10% of it -W]

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  23. Cheating? Pshaw! You tagged the linked Flickr photo with ‘Lescun’.

    I’ll have a wild guess: the hill is a moraine of coralline limestone scraped up by a glacier that melted in about 6 AD. Melting glaciers, coral, Christmas… Maybe not.

    OK, then. The pic is relevant because it’s looking up out of a valley that was full of hypocrites (cagots) until the Revolution, after which most of them moved elsewhere. Except I don’t think Kiribatians are particularly hypocritical climate change-wise. (Other Pacific islanders have European levels of per capita emissions and above.) Nor, as far as I know, are they especially bigoted – the other meaning of ‘cagot’.

    I give up. What’s the answer?

    [You were polite enough to be interested so I should answer. It is a little hill called “Aloun” just behind the house where we stayed for three summers in a row a decade back. It is quite small even by local standards but somehow is always there whenever you looked around the valley, so I considered a photo series called “20 views of the Aloun” modelled on “Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus” but now I’m down to two. Well, it pleased me even if it makes less sense when written out – W]

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  24. ‘ Kiribati ‘ is the local version of ‘ Gilbert ‘ , the English captain the island group was named after. ( ti is pronounced s , so Kiribas and Karismas. ) Christmas island is not part of the main group.
    One of the British colonial administrators, Sir Arthur Grimble, wrote an interesting book on his youthful apprenticeship on the islands, including acting as octopus bait for the locals, learning the language, and getting tattooed on initiation.

    [Ah yes: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pattern-Islands-Sir-Arthur-Grimble/dp/1906011451. I read that as a youth. It is confusing when things change name and you don’t realise you’re talking about the same thing -W]

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