That leaves little room for retreat from rising seas, as climate change heats oceans and fuels melting of the world’s ice.
In coming years, keeping the Pacific nation’s about 60,000 people above the waves would require investing tens of billions of dollars in physically elevating homes and infrastructure, Stege said – money unlikely to be found.
“In my country, there is no higher ground,” noted Stege, the climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, during an event at the COP27 UN climate talks in Egypt.
“If we’re going to have higher ground, we need to build it.”
Migration is the more likely eventual option for Stege and her neighbours – and for millions of other people around the world now struggling to remain in homes battered by climate change impacts, from sea level rise to droughts and storms.
“We should not be so naive to think in the current circumstances people will not move,” said António Vitorino, director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Climate change is already having “profound impacts on human mobility,” he said at COP27.
How many people might migrate as climate pressures grow is nearly impossible to estimate with any accuracy, not least because the scale and timing of climate shocks is hard to predict, and because whether people move depends on a huge range of factors, including how much help they get for recovery.
In 2021, about 23.7 million people were uprooted within their own countries, usually temporarily, as a result of disasters, many related to weather extremes, according to the Internal Displacement Migration Centre.
Without serious and rapid action to deal with climate change, about 216 million people could be internal climate migrants by 2050, according to the World Bank.