Climate change is a clear and present danger that has already claimed the lives of millions, and is set to claim millions more – in every single country across the globe.
Islands will – and have – been wiped out, hundreds of millions will be made homeless, disease and starvation will kill countless millions, and everyone will suffer.
There will be three types of countries: wealthy ones who can help all their citizens through the worst effects (if they choose to), poorer nations that will lose citizens and cities to gradual and unforeseen disasters, and countries which will cease to exist.
In 2100, as things currently stand, the world will be 3°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, according to the United Nations (UN).
If no action is taken, cities like Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, and Shanghai will be entirely submerged – but at least they have governments that can spend billions of pounds to save them by building flood defence walls, reclaiming land, and relocating citizens when needed.
The worst-affected countries don’t have that luxury, and need our help urgently. We’ve explained our methodology below for working out which nations are most vulnerable – even though all countries will suffer as a result of climate change.
Four of the countries set to be worst affected by climate change are in this region
Two of Tuvalu’s nine islands are on the verge of going under, and its 11,000 residents are suffering from dying crops, rotting fruit trees, and poisoned fish that cause vomiting, fevers, and diarrhoea for anyone who eats one.
In the next 30 to 50 years, the entire country could be rendered uninhabitable, according to a United Nations report.
Faster than average sea level rises are set to make short work of the islands, which sit less than two metres above the ocean, on average. This process will likely be exacerbated and expedited by higher occurrences of cyclones, droughts, floods, and tsunamis.
The South Pacific island, which is part of the British Commonwealth, is also suffering from the effects of coastal flooding on its crops and freshwater reserves.
This is already limiting the amount of freshwater that residents have for drinking, washing, and farming.
While some will be able to move countries when the time comes that their home is unlivable, Tuvalu is a relatively poor nation, and many citizens could not afford the 2,000-mile trip to Australia, for instance.
“Tuvalu is sinking” is already a catchphrase in the country. Without help, the fourth-smallest nation in the world will vanish without a trace.
Around 8,000 miles away from the Pacific islands on our list, this popular South Asian beach destination is also struggling to survive.
The picturesque Maldives is made up of 26 atolls – a low-lying ring of land surrounding a lagoon that doesn’t offer much protection against rising sea levels.
As a direct result of man-made climate change, more than 80% of the country is now less than one metre above the average sea level. A golf resort on Villingili island boasts the most elevated point in the Maldives: a five-metre-high mound at the fifth hole.
An undersea press conference held by the Maldives’ President and his cabinet in 2009 raised awareness of the islands’ plight, but the situation remains dire.
If the sea level rises by a metre – a distinct possibility – then without assistance, the Maldives will be completely overwhelmed by the ocean in about 2085.
3. Marshall Islands
Around 28,000 people – half of this Pacific nation’s population – live on the Majuro Atoll, where a one-metre sea level rise could wipe 80% of the land off the map.
Natural disasters are also more disastrous on the Marshall Islands, as evacuation is practically impossible. The isolated islands are between Hawaii and the Philippines, in much the same way that Earth is between Venus and Mars.
In addition to these climate concerns, the ongoing destruction of the Marshall Islands raises the possibility of a different, specifically nuclear disaster.
Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands.
As well as exposing residents to radiation poisoning, the US government also dumped 88,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste in a huge concrete dome on the island, including 130 tons of radioactive soil from a Nevada testing site.
That facility – known locally as ‘The Tomb’ – is in danger of breaking apart, especially as sea levels rise, spilling a deluge of nuclear waste into the ocean.
The US has refused to take responsibility for this ticking time bomb, and despite working with the Marshall Islands to arrange an international tribunal in 1988, has paid just $3.9 million of the $2.2 billion that the tribunal ordered as compensation.
The Marshallese government has a plan to fight the effects of climate change – dredge land and reclaim it for human use – but that’s expensive.
Without the US paying for its past crimes, the islands will be doomed by the US’s present and future crimes against the climate, in its role as the largest source of carbon emissions on the planet.
This central Pacific island nation is also in danger of being wiped off the map.
Much of the land spread across Kiribati’s 33 islands is just two metres above sea level, and inhabitants have already suffered as a result of climate change.
Fresh water, which is crucial for growing numerous food sources, has been increasingly contaminated by the encroaching ocean, killing off banana trees, taro plants, and coconut trees.
The £4 million Kiribati Adaptation Program, an international intervention funded by the UN, World Bank, and Australian and Japanese governments, has helped somewhat, but Kiribati is still in a precarious position.
Like so many threatened nations, Kiribati understands the dangers of climate change better than larger countries.
It’s made one of the lowest contributions to climate change in the world, at around 0.6 tonnes of CO2e per person, and lies 170th of 186 nations in terms of GDP per person.
Despite both of these facts, and even though it’s not obligated to do so, the country has told the UN it’s committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 13.7% by 2025.
5. Federated States of Micronesia
Sea levels in the western Pacific have risen at “two to three times the global average over the past few decades”, according to Sunshine Coast University Professor Patrick Nunn – but the situation is even worse in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
This nation of 607 islands has seen sea levels grow by three or four times the global average each year. In some cases this has flooded cemeteries, and forced farmers to permanently abandon their crops.
And that’s not all. Between 2007 and 2014, six islands disappeared from view as if they never existed, joining former islands like Kepidau en Pehleng and Nahlapenlohd below the waves.
In 2018, FSM President Peter Christian said: “[Based on] our current trajectory, many more islands will be lost, many homes destroyed, many people displaced.
“But we can still avoid the worst climate impacts if we recognise the need for speed, and take fast action.”
The FSM have been continuously inhabited for 3,500 years, ever since people left the Philippines and sailed an unbroken 1,400 miles to the islands. If action isn’t taken, the nation will soon disappear forever.
Pohnpei is one of many islands in the FSM under threat from rising sea levels
What are the impacts of climate change?
Climate change has already caused millions of deaths, massive increases in poverty and homelessness, and widespread extinctions in the natural world – and things are set to get worse.
Air pollution causes the deaths of seven million people every year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is one in eight of all deaths. And these pollutants are prompting a host of natural shifts that endanger countries around the world.
Some phenomena are continuous; others are sudden. 3,000 people died in the 15 worst natural disasters linked to climate change in 2019, and these catastrophes will only get more serious and frequent, according to the Public Health Institute and Scientific American.
But that’s not even the worst of it. Many more deaths will likely occur in less dramatic, wholly unnecessary ways.
In 2014, the WHO estimated that climate change would cause five million deaths between 2030 and 2050, due to heat exposure in the elderly, diarrhoea, malaria, and childhood undernutrition. Children in developing nations will make up the majority of these deaths.
In 2019, this estimate was deemed “conservative” by a New England Journal of Medicine review that noted climate change would cause food shortages leading to 529,000 adult deaths by 2050, and push 100 million more people into extreme poverty by 2030.
All of these effects will contribute to creating an increasing number of climate refugees. 143 million people will be forced to leave their homes and move within their country by 2050, according to The World Bank.
The sea levels are rising
This is partly because sea levels are rising around the world, and could end up climbing by as much as five metres by the year 2300, according to more than 100 specialists. But let’s take a shorter-term view, and focus on our grandchildren’s fate.
If we reach 2100 and humanity has managed to keep the global temperature to 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels, the sea level will have risen by 0.5 metres.
This will place 190 million people below projected high tide lines in 2100, according to Nature Communications, making their homes unlivable and dangerous. Entire countries will disappear forever – and some already have, because not all increases are equal.
An island off the coast of India, Ghoramora, has lost half of its land in the last 20 years, causing tens of thousands to flee. The 5,000 people who remain can’t afford to leave, and are stuck on a 4.5km² piece of land that’s sinking before their eyes.
One of Oceania’s Solomon Islands, called Nuatambu, was home to 25 families in 2011. Since then, it has sunk entirely into the ocean, drowned by a rapidly rising sea level.
This is because the Pacific Ocean is rising at a higher than average rate, which directly threatens many of its dozens of nations and 25,000 islands.
Which countries will survive climate change?
Countries with both the will and the money to tackle climate change head on will do best in the fight for survival – as long as they’re also geographically lucky.
The Scandinavian countries Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, as well as New Zealand, have the best chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative.
All other countries should survive the 21st century, but very few will escape unscathed.
To demonstrate this, the UK comes 11th on Notre Dame’s list, but is set to face flooding, food and water shortages, heatwaves, and blackouts by 2050 if nothing is done to protect its infrastructure and citizens.
And from Miami to Ho Chi Minh City, from the Netherlands to China, cities will be partially and totally destroyed, leaving a trail of homelessness and ruin – especially if governments don’t plan for this inevitability.
For instance, Vietnam is looking at land which is currently home to 20 million people – 21% of its population – being submerged by 2100.
And though the likes of Ho Chi Minh City, Miami, and Shanghai could be underwater by the end of the century, the situation is more grave in Alexandria, Basra, and Mumbai.
These historic cities all face being mostly underwater by 2050, according to The New York Times.
It’s also worth remembering that climate change will continue to accelerate past 2100 if we don’t eliminate carbon emissions, endangering every nation on Earth.
First it will come for the small island nations – and if we don’t do anything, it will come for everyone else too.
Which country is best placed to survive climate change?
Norway is the least vulnerable country when it comes to climate change, both because of its geographically privileged position, and because it’s tackling the phenomenon with a seriousness that should be matched by every nation.
But no country is immune. Norway is set to suffer more flooding and landslides, showing that the only question is not whether climate change will affect you, but simply how badly.
Rich countries should follow the lead of Norway, as well as nations like Singapore, Brunei, and South Korea, which are more vulnerable than many, but have risen up Notre Dame’s rankings by proactively guarding against the worst outcomes.
Those with the weath should also share it, to ensure that the destruction of countries like Tuvalu, the Maldives, and the Marshall Islands is avoided.
We consulted a variety of sources – including university professors, the UN, and the World Bank – to find out how quickly sea level rises would lead to different island nations becoming completely submerged.
We also took ecological threats into account, thanks largely to The 2020 Ecological Threat Register, created by the Institute for Economics and Peace.
The analysis measures and predicts food insecurity, water scarcity, and high population growth, as well as the threat of floods, droughts, cyclones, the sea level rising, and increasing temperatures.
The 19 countries which are reportedly set to face the largest number of threats by 2050 are home to 2.1 billion people – and many of them, including Afghanistan, Chad, and Pakistan, are already unstable for other reasons.
These countries won’t vanish without a trace like Tuvalu, but they will endure centuries of suffering if the international community doesn’t offer more help.