Palau is a rare wonder: An untouched island nation, brimming with verdant rainforests, beautiful coral, hundreds of species of marine life and some of the best diving in the world. The waters are so clear that swimming in them has been likened to a space walk. The country regularly makes it onto lists of “places you need to see before you die” and you wouldn’t be remiss if you started daydreaming about a vacation there right now. Except you may never have the chance: Palau might die before you do.
“We are living on the frontline of climate change,” Tommy Remengesau, Paulau’s President tells Uproxx’s Christina Pascucci. “The sea levels are already rising, destroying our low-lying atolls, our crops, our homeland.”
As the ocean changes, so does Palau’s weather — the 200-island archipelago, which rarely saw extreme weather in the past (a typhoon occurred once every 20 years) was hit with two super typhoons in two years, rendering some of the nation’s most spectacular reefs non-existent. In 2016, National Geographic reported that Jellyfish Lake, one of Palau’s most notable attractions, where divers can swim with thousands of golden jellies that have lost their sting, has all but vanished due to climate change. The country’s water supply has been threatened by both drought and rising sea levels.
“People have this apathetic feeling that we’ll worry about it when the time comes,” Remengesau says, “but actually it’s already too late to just talk about it. We don’t want to leave. This is our homeland.”
Having to flee isn’t a foregone conclusion, but it’s a very possible one for an island nation being threatened by climate change. The Solomon Islands, located in Oceania, have slowly been disappearing underwater. Five islets have been completely submerged. Six others have lost more than 20 percent of their surface areas, according to CNN, making it necessary for some living in the archipelago to abandon their family homes. The population of Taro, a provincial capital, now fears that they will have to relocate, too. And if they do have to leave, they’ll have the daunting task of trying to move major infrastructure.
“Our children will not inherit the same world we grew up in,” Keobel Sakuma of Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary tells Pascucci. “I think the question now is can we create a word for them that is habitable? It’s not a matter of whether we believe it or not, it’s happening.”
With Donald Trump announcing today that America will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, we’re locked in a bitter race against time to ensure our environmental future. No nation has the luxury of not taking action and hoping for the best — certainly not Palau.
“We have to be more proactive, we have to deal with it as a global community,” Remengesau says. “Only then can we address it.”
While Palau is certainly struggling, the world would do well to learn lessons from the changes the island nation has made. Though the United States is 17,000 times its size, Palau has done more to fight climate change many of the biggest nations on earth. Palau’s people are most concerned with conserving the ocean and have taken a massive step forward in honoring their centuries-long commitment to protecting their waters by creating a marine sanctuary with the nation’s “entire exclusive economic zone.” 80 percent of the water in the archipelago is a no-fishing zone. That’s an area larger than the state of California.
What the citizens of Palau hope is that the rest of the world will follow in their footsteps. And with The International Union for Conservation of Nature stating that 30 percent of our oceans must be protected in marine reserves by 2030, it’s a message that we can’t afford to ignore. Not just because Palau is in danger of disappearing, but because what happens there is only a harbinger of what will happen to the rest of the world. Climate change isn’t a debate, it’s a reality. If we don’t take action to stop it, Palau’s citizens will lose their homes, its marine life will go extinct, it’s coral reefs will die, and we will lose all the beauty that the nation affords us. It’s no wonder that Palau is on the front lines of fighting back.
“We have to try,” says Paul Collins, a researcher and marine biologist who works on Palau. “If we don’t try, its my children, it’s your children. its the children of the future that are going to feel all of the impact.”