Climate Action

Haunting underwater photos warn of the devastating impact of rising sea levels on the Pacific islands

On the frontline of the climate crisis, the Pacific islands are vulnerable to the worst effects of extreme weather events.

On the frontline of the climate crisis, the Pacific islands are vulnerable to the worst effects of extreme weather events. Image: Sink Rise/Nick Brandt

Meg Jones
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • This photographer's underwater photo series captures the devastating impacts of rising sea levels.
  • The inhabitants of the Pacific islands are vulnerable to the worst effects of extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis.
  • Climate and environmental risks are the biggest global risks over the next decade, according to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2023.

What would you do if you were told your home will soon be completely underwater?

For Pacific Ocean communities, this is no longer just a question but a reality they are being forced to face as a result of the climate crisis.

Fine art photographer, Nick Brandt, reveals his latest photo series focusing on the inhabitants of the Fijian islands, who fear their future will be lost to rising sea levels and climate degradation.

SINK/RISE is the third chapter of The Day May Break, his global series capturing the people and animals for whom climate disruption is not a theoretical issue, but an inescapable part of daily life.

Akessa sitting on a chair underwater.
Brandt’s project was developed to highlight how rising sea levels will affect low-lying islands. Image: Sink Rise/Nick Brandt

These haunting real-time images capture Pacific islanders holding their breath on the ocean floor, surrounded by broken pieces of coral, symbolizing the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on this region.

What impact is climate change having on the Pacific islands?

On the frontline of the climate crisis, the Pacific islands are vulnerable to the worst effects of extreme weather events.

According to a report by the World Meteorological Organization, water levels in the South-West Pacific are rising about 4mm per year – faster than the global average.

Battered by tropical cyclones in recent years, Fiji has experienced devastating flooding, leading to loss of life, mass displacement and large-scale economic consequences. In the face of such devastation, it’s perhaps unsurprising the Fijian government considers climate change as the gravest security threat in the Asia-Pacific region.

Environmental and climate risks dominate global risk perceptions for the next decade, according to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2023.

Chart showing the global risks ranked by severity over the short term and long term.
Failure to mitigate climate change is ranked the No 1 global risk of the next 10 years. Image: World Economic Forum

How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

As extreme weather events become more frequent, the livelihoods of those living in the most climate-vulnerable countries become increasingly precarious.

This was the driving force behind Brandt’s deep-dive photo series. In his self-termed “pre-apocalyptic” shoot, he wanted to visualize the impact sea level rise will have on the lives of millions of people.

 Ben stands behind his father, Viti in an underwater photoshoot.
Ben stands behind his father, Viti, a longtime conservationist. Image: Sink Rise/Nick Brand

The inhabitants of these small Pacific island states are being heavily impacted by the climate crisis – despite only being responsible for 0.03% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Global collaboration is vital for advancing climate solutions

The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Philanthropy for Climate and Nature focuses on the need for collaboration to respond to the urgent demands of the climate emergency – as public-private collaboration is critical in the global effort to accelerate climate action.

The COP28 summit has made history with a world-first “loss and damage” fund agreed by delegates to help countries cope with the costs of climate damage. Wealthy nations have so far pledged over $700 million to the fund, according to the latest reports at the time of writing.

Serafina holds her brother, Keanan, in an underwater photoshoot. climate crisis
Serafina holds her brother Keanan. Image: Sink Rise/Nick Brandt

The Global Risks Report highlights that as the world experiences more extreme weather events, such as flooding, heatwaves and droughts, a wider set of populations will be affected.

Joel and Petero sit on a seesaw in an underwater photoshoot.
Joel and Petero sit on a seesaw. Image: Sink Rise/Nick Brandt

Brandt says he sees a sign of hope in this image, as though “the older generation is lifting the younger generation up towards the light”.

The impact of the climate crisis means 42 Fijian villages are likely to relocate in the next 5-10 years, with lifelong residents leaving their homes to secure a future for the next generation.

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