Perceptions of climate change in Maldives

Profiles of Norwegian science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
What will the future hold for the children of Maldives?

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Norway funds a lot of research to understand how quickly human-caused climate change is happening and the expected impacts on the air, oceans, land, and ecosystems. We must also worry about ourselves, how climate change affects our health, our drinking water, our food, our jobs, and our infrastructure.

One project, which I led, funded by the Research Council of Norway, looked beyond what is happening and what will happen to the environment. We wished to understand the thoughts of people who are said to be most affected by climate change, those living on low-lying islands.

We picked the country of Maldives in the Indian Ocean, sprawled across a few dozen atolls south of India. We interviewed several hundred Maldivians to understand their perceptions and understandings of how climate change could affect their homes and lives. Given all the media attention on “climate refugees,” we were also interested in their views of being forced to move as climate change’s impacts are increasingly felt.

In the capital, Malé, and its surrounding islands, we asked people how they were experiencing any variations in the environment and their expectations for future changes. Foremost in people’s minds was the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, which killed dozens across the country, although they recognized that it was not linked to climate change.

Otherwise, most people identified major environmental changes during their lifetime, suggesting that the weather is hotter, summer monsoons arrive sooner, and winter monsoons are drier. The expectation of rising sea levels under climate change was also highlighted, so people were considering how this might affect their homes and livelihoods.

These perceived changes do not really influence their thoughts about moving from their home island. They are certainly considering the chance that they might need to leave their country, yet migration has always been part of Maldivian lives and society. Religious, social, economic, and cultural factors continue to dominate their decisions about moving overseas or not.

We had similar reactions from people outside the capital. Migration forced by climate change is not high on their conscience or agenda. While the world’s media often hold up Maldives as being an icon for poor islanders who must flee for their lives as “climate change refugees,” the people themselves prioritized other reasons for moving.

Better jobs and living conditions alongside improved access to health care and education were prominent among the explanations for possibly shifting their abode. In most cases, they would prefer to move from their outer atolls to the capital. Leaving the country is not a main consideration. Migration due to climate change’s impacts might be relevant in the future, they said, but it is not a priority for now.

Our research did not stop in Maldives. We compared perceptions from Malé atoll with those in St. Kitts, the larger island of the country of St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean. Our surveys assessed how people living in each location understood changes to society and the environment.

Climate change was not prominent in either place. Environmental changes are identified and climate change falls within some explanations, giving a general perspective that environmental changes are happening quickly and are negative. But social changes dominate the people’s thoughts. Crime, poverty, and inadequate social services, in particular, are emphasized.

We found similar matters raised when we compared interviews from two Maldivian islands away from the capital with two islands in Lakshadweep, a territory of India, just north from Maldives. The people’s perceptions of migration, climate change, and possible connections between climate change and migration were framed within a focus on their local area and the immediate timeframe. As most of us do, they highlighted what affects them in their home at the moment, even while they aspire to a better life over the long term and for future generations.

Hopes for the future might involve migration, as it frequently has in the past. They are not unduly influenced by outside directions, especially regarding climate change.

Our science provides two main recommendations for policy and practice on climate change and migration. First, climate change cannot remain a standalone topic. Rather than presenting it as the biggest threat or the most important topic today, it must be enfolded into people’s day-to-day concerns and generation-to-generation aspirations.

More importantly, developing climate change policies and related actions will cause problems unless the perceptions, understandings, and interests of the people affected are taken into account. Messages and suggestions that are scientifically accurate and fair to the people are easy to produce.

This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.