Sinking Paradise? Climate change vulnerability and Pacific Island extinction narratives

Weatherill, Charlotte Kate (2023). Sinking Paradise? Climate change vulnerability and Pacific Island extinction narratives. Geoforum, 145, article no. 103566.



The extinction narrative of the ‘sinking island states’ is well known and discussed extensively in the climate change institutions, academic literature, and media accounts of climate change. This article questions the theoretical basis upon which this narrative has developed, asking how it became so embedded in climate change politics, and what implications this narrative has both for islands and for action on climate change. Focussing on the Pacific, this article uses the insights of racial capitalism and critical feminism to historicise the sinking islands extinction narrative. This historical analysis shows that underlying these extinction narratives of doomed islands and islanders is a colonial logic of disposability that has developed over time, shifting to naturalise changing forms of violence and exploitation in the Pacific. This argument has implications for climate change politics where extinction narratives are widespread, including in justice arguments. The racialised and gendered colonial logics that underlie vulnerability discourse means it does not function to strengthen arguments for mitigation, but instead to naturalise the suffering and loss of those deemed vulnerable. Questioning how discourses of vulnerability impact on capitalist accumulations and dispossessions is therefore important, as the solutions to vulnerability are different if it is understood not as inherent, but as an actively reproduced condition that is being resisted by vulnerabilised communities.

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