Climate Change and Conflict By Carol Farbotko and John Campbell  |  10 February, 2023

Atoll Futures – Defining Habitability

Image: Kiribati - Maloff/Shutterstock

The risk of atoll uninhabitability in the context of sea level rise is a well-known issue, often simplified to assume an inevitable mass exodus of atoll populations and thus described as an existential threat.

But for ethical reasons, claims that an entire region or nation may no longer be habitable due to climate change should not be made lightly, not least because the scientific evidence of future uninhabitability is not conclusive. Indeed, the risks of climate change for atoll places are complex, dispersed in space and time, involve additional environmental and social factors, and are unlikely to take the form of a discrete submersion or other disaster event through which uninhabitability suddenly presents itself as reality.

Furthermore, during forty years of an existential threat narrative about atolls, what has not happened on any atoll is a mass exodus, either anticipatory of or in response to conditions of problematic habitability.

Significantly, but rarely noted in mainstream climate change discourse, is a strong will and desire among governments and citizens alike on atolls, for populations to stay. It is therefore problematic that non-local understandings of uninhabitability—that is, those produced by outsiders such as documentary-makers, journalists and development experts—have coalesced into an ostensible truth about an inevitable and even imminent need for relocation of atoll people to protect them against an imagined dystopia of uninhabitability.

The discourse of existential threat to atolls is dangerous for atoll-dwellers because it is persistent, appealing to popular or common-sense ideas, and it can produce the effects it names. Dystopian narratives about uninhabitability, when repeated over and over again, have taken on a truth value that is far removed from on the ground reality on atolls – where the priority is in-situ adaptation.

But perversely, dystopian narratives are starting to shape reality. The idea of uninhabitability as inevitable is having real implications, such as declining investment by donors in atoll development and in-situ adaptation.

Given these negative implications, the concept of uninhabitability needs to be reoriented in adaptation and mobility policies, theories, and projects. At the outset, this means recognising and unpacking the concept of uninhabitability for the political work it enables.

Firstly, it needs to be well recognised that the concept of ‘habitability’ can, usefully, be open to multiple interpretations. Habitability itself is too often hidden within a common-sense perception that atoll places are doomed to disappear, and is understood as something that can be defined by scientifically determined, material thresholds. However, there is not necessarily an objectively knowable point at which a place becomes uninhabitable. Moreover, uninhabitability is not simply the result of deteriorating material conditions. Rather, uninhabitability unfolds as a process of highly contextual and varied cultural and social as well as environmental and physical conditions. Habitability—particularly for subsistence societies—is often dependent on local knowledge, belief systems and values. People do not just live where resources are abundant or where livelihoods are available, but in locations that make sense within the specific history and culture of those who live there.

Secondly, once habitability is seen to be a situated and contextual phenomenon, questions must be asked about who can and should define uninhabitability. Since the qualities that make a particular place acceptable to live in are culturally and historically specific, involving local knowledges, cosmologies and place attachments, habitability is revealed as irreducible to material elements of human security such as housing, food and water, as important as these are. Western science, however helpful in identifying the material effects of climate change on atolls, is limited in the extent to which it can grapple with the meanings and experiences of habitability among atoll inhabitants. This requires atoll people themselves to be genuinely respected as the experts in their own habitability.

Thirdly, for outsiders to continually reproduce a discourse of imminent uninhabitability of atolls without close attention to atoll cultures’ values and knowledge, important rights of affected people to name and claim atoll habitability and uninhabitability within their knowledge systems and on their terms are potentially being denied. Currently, the process of defining habitability and uninhabitability is conceptualised largely as a technical undertaking for experts, leaving much room for the exercise of power in pushing forward with solutions that fit with the worldviews and institutional interests of external experts and their funders. And yet this is where the complex issues at stake, such as self-determination, political agency, religion, ancestral ties to place, and cultural identity can and should be negotiated in new ways by the affected people themselves, within their governance systems.

In sum, the concept of habitability is culturally and socially experienced and open to multiple truth claims, which need to be understood and operationalised differently in theory, policy and projects going forward. If uninhabitability and habitability have open possibilities for conceptualisation and meaning, planning for the trajectory from habitable to uninhabitable must consider multiple possible outcomes, not neatly or objectively knowable, and always include continued habitability as one of these. The concepts of habitability and uninhabitability are relational, situated concepts and thus questions must be asked about who can and should define habitability in atolls and other places that are at risk of significant impacts of climate change. Recognising who has power over the definition of uninhabitability can make the difference between outcomes for atoll people: staying in place, voluntary movement, or movement that is experienced as forced. Atoll people should be at the forefront of imagining their own futures, in a range of scenarios that capture both habitability and uninhabitability as possibilities. Atoll people have the right to voice their reasons to stay. And, if uninhabitability becomes a reality, atoll people have a right to move, and to have significant input into deciding where they will go. 

There are responsibilities here for the international community: to consider whether the agency and power of atoll people to imagine their own future is really being taken into account in international policy and research. Habitability and uninhabitability need to be widely recognised as inherently situated concepts that can only contribute to climate justice when the affected population have an authentic, central and valid role in defining them for policy purposes. Climate-exposed atoll populations must be accorded the right to have their experience and knowledge of habitability—and their perceived thresholds of uninhabitability—central to science, law, policy and planning that seeks to address climate change risk.


Carol Farbotko is a cultural geographer with research interests in climate mobilities and the politics of climate risk, focusing on the Pacific Island region. She is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Griffith University.

John R. Campbell has been researching population and environment issues in Pacific Island countries since the 1970s. He is currently working on the human dimensions of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction including environmental migration.


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