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Climate Changes Implications To Pacific Islands

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 5431 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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Based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) fourth assessment report, it identifies small island states as being the most vulnerable countries of the world to the adverse impacts of climate change. The Pacific islands in fact without doubt one of world’s most vulnerable regions when it comes to the risks of disaster due to climate change, especially to the several of the low-laying coral islands. Climate change is already affecting Pacific islands with dramatic revenue loss across sectors such as agriculture, water resources, forestry, tourism and other industry-related sectors. The Pacific islands are subjected to the impacts of climate change caused by excessive fossil burning, deforestation and atmospheric pollution. The Pacific islands see climate change is the major disaster and have openly and continually blame the industrialized nations for failure to take definitive steps towards deteriorating pollution of the global atmosphere. Climate change poses an existential threat to the Pacific islands and may further aggravate conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. This paper examines the implications of climate change on economic, social and political security in the Pacific islands states.

KEYWORDS: Climate change, Pacific islands, Small Island states, Pollution


Pacific islands consist of small islands like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Fiji, Cook Islands, Marshal Islands, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. Pacific islands are one of the region are being affected by climate change. Due to their geographical size, the impacts of climate change seem faster that other regions.

What is climate change? According to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change (UNFCCC), climate change refers to a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that changes the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods. As the United Nations Secretary General has said, it is the major, overriding environmental issue of our time, and the single greatest challenge facing environmental regulators. It is a growing crisis with economic, health and safety, food production, security, and other dimensions.

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Based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) fourth assessment report, it identifies small island states as being the most vulnerable countries of the world to the unpleasant impacts of climate change. The Pacific islands in fact without doubt one of world’s most vulnerable regions when it comes to the risks of disaster due to climate change, especially to the several of the low-laying coral islands like Kiribati and Tuvalu. Climate change is already affecting Pacific islands with dramatic revenue loss across sectors such as forestry, tourism, water resources, agriculture, and other related sectors.

The 41st meeting of the Pacific islands Forum, which took place in Port Vila, Vanuatu, from 4th to 5th of August 2010, concluded with the issuance of a Communiqué, which contains a section on climate change. According to the Communiqué, climate change remains the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific islands. The Pacific islands leaders stress the need for a meaningful legally-binding agreement on emissions reduction to be reached urgently and without delay.

This paper will focus on the implications of climate change on economic, social and political security in the Pacific islands. The first part of this paper will provide a brief summary on climate change and the Pacific islands and issues arise from climate change; second, we will examine the implications of climate change: threat to human security such as food, natural resources and ecosystem, and health; migration; and political instability.

The impacts of climate change are quite varied. If we look at the physical impacts that climate change is having, we will see the issues arise from climate change are sea level rises and temperature increases. According to Espen Ronneberg, changes in atmospheric and ocean temperatures will be having impacts on Pacific islands through a mixture of physical interactions and one of them is changes in precipitation patterns. Hence, climate change creates an existential threat to the Pacific islands and may further exacerbate conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. Climate change is increasing the harshness and frequency of disasters, which are causing displacement, livelihood insecurity and increasing political instability. This research paper is attempted to discover the implications of climate change on economic, social and political security in the Pacific islands even though there are a few consensus regarding the climate change have been made for example during the 108th Congress (2003-2004), nearly 100 bills, resolutions, and amendments specifically addressing climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were introduced. The bills, resolutions, and amendments focused primarily on climate change research and comprehensive emissions cap and trade programs. Additional bills concentrated on GHG reporting and power plant emissions of CO2.

Physical Evidences of Climatic Change

The Pacific islands are subjected to the impacts of climate change caused by human influences such as excessive fossil burning, deforestation and atmospheric pollution; and due to natural reasons for instance the movement of tectonic plates, orbital variations, volcanism and ocean variability. The Pacific islands see climate change as the major disaster and have openly and continually blame the industrialized nations like United States for failure to take definitive steps towards deteriorating pollution of the global atmosphere. Besides that, the increasing of population growth, tourism and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources negatively impacts the ecosystem. The growth of population is expected to further exacerbate land and resource scarcity and make the situation more badly. Climate change poses an existential threat to the Pacific islands and may further exacerbate conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. Below are the two major issues that arise due to climate change.

Sea Level Rising

The issues arise due to climate change are sea-levels rising, extreme weather events and disasters and livelihood degradation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) agrees the primary issue arise due to climate change is rising of the sea level. Relatively small rises in sea level would make some densely settled coastal plains uninhabitable and create a significant problem. Moreover, any increase in sea level will accelerate the coastal erosion and cause the low-lying island states like what happen in Tuvalu and Kiribati. It is estimated that, the sea-levels are likely to rise for the next centuries to come. Presently, the IPCC predicts sea level rise is most probable to be just short of half a meter, and at least between 9 and 88 cm through 2100, but they also warn that climate change during that time may lead to irreversible changes in the earth’s glacial system and ultimately melt enough ice to raise sea level many meters over the next decade.

Tuvalu is the best example to explain issue of rise of sea level. In early 2000, there were a series of media reporting over sea level rise issues using Tuvalu as an example. The daily life of Tuvalu revolves around the ocean and the immediate threat on the Tuvaluan, economy, environment and its islands is of concern to the Tuvalu government. Tuvalu government has concluded that Tuvalu was destined to become the first nation to be sunk by climate change because it is one of the smallest and lowest-lying countries in the world.

Erosion due to sea level rise is not the only issue in Tuvalu. Inundation will increase further inland together with salt water intrusion to destroy underground the freshwater sources. According to McCracken of the United States Global Change Research of Climate change, a 1 cm rise in sea level can consume 1 m or more of beach width towards the sea. Below figure shows the sea level trends for Tuvalu since 1995.

Figure 1: The sea level trends Source: Than Aung, Awnesh Singh and Uma Prasad. “Sea Level Threat in Tuvalu.” (2009)

The issue of the rising of sea level is not a new issue to Tuvalu. The actual danger to Tuvalu is the rate of the sea level rise. Figure 1 shows the sea level trends with time, it is quite clear that trends for Tuvalu are more or less horizontal since 1999. It clearly indicates that the sea level rise rate is not accelerating but however, as mention earlier a 1 cm rise in sea level can consume 1 m or more of beach width towards the sea; it shows how dangerous the rising of sea level may affect small islands like Tuvalu.

Extreme Weather Events and Disasters

The Pacific islands states are more exposed to extreme weather events and climate variability than most countries. The increase in temperature and sea level rise is expected to trigger an increase in natural disasters. The region will experience increasing frequency and severity of extreme events such as heat waves, exceptional rainfall events, droughts, tropical cyclones, storm surges, EI-Nino conditions, and severe diseases.

Floods and droughts are particularly devastating for small islands. Many islands rely on regular rainfall to recharge limited groundwater resources. When there is too little rain, or too much at one time, these reservoirs are taxed, threatening food and water security. Flooding and droughts will render whole islands, particularly low-lying atolls, uninhabitable, leading to their abandonment, migration and conflicts over resources, thus endangering security on the islands.

This extreme weather has gave impacts to economy such as it led to the decline of tourists to Pacific islands, a good example was the case of Niue, in 2004 Cyclone Heta had destroyed a large part of the island. The summary of the impacts of extreme weather and events as per shown in the below table.

Table 1: Impacts of Extreme Weather Events and Disasters Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change <http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_figures_and_tables_IPCC_AR4_wg1_figures.htm>

Implications of the Climate change to Pacific Islands

Threat to Human Security

Climate change may result a threat to human security. It may become more difficult for human to satisfy their basic needs. As far as everybody concerned, the needs of immediate action to find solutions for people whose homes, lands and livelihood, are being destroyed by rising of the sea levels and the extreme weather disasters. Ajay Chhibber, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General once said, “We recognize climate change to be a critical development challenge with enormous implications for the entire range of development concerns: poverty, livelihoods, food security, conflict and social cohesion, to name a few.” He added, “At a time of global economic crisis, climate change has the potential to reverse hard-won development gains in the region, which could compromise our collective ability to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and plans for a prosperous, peaceful and secure region.”

Sea level rise will increase salt water intrusion, thus degrading fresh water resources. The impacts of climate change on freshwater systems are mainly due to the observed and projected increases in temperature, sea level and rainfall variability. An increase in the ratio of winter to annual flows, and possibly the reduction in low flows caused by decreased glacier extent or snow water storage, is predicted. Sea-level rise will extend areas of salinisation of groundwater and estuaries, resulting in a decrease in freshwater availability for humans and ecosystems in coastal areas. Increased rainfall intensity and variability is projected to increase the risks of flooding and droughts in many areas of the world especially to small island states. This will diminish economic sectors such as agricultural production unless new resistant crops are introduced to offset these impacts.

The Pacific islands states have traditionally depended upon food production for survival and economic development. In addition, the issue of sea level rise is not the only cause a threat to human security in terms of food security, but the extreme weather also brings negative impact to food security in the Pacific islands. The extreme weather that cause drought also cause many problems particularly in agriculture all over the region. Increased risk of flooding in river catchments also threatens food production. Heavy flooding of the Wainibuka and Rewa rivers in Fiji in April 2004, for example, damaged between 50% and 70% of crops. A few studies have focused on the impacts of climate change on agriculture sector in Fiji. For example changes in temperature and rainfall have influence agricultural production. Sugarcane production is expected to drop by 9% from current conditions with losses averaging US$13.7million a year by 2050. Impacts on traditional crops with 11-15% drop in taro, yam and cassava production with a loss of US$680,000 a year in lost food crops. In terms of the economic costs of climate change impacts, the island of Viti Levu, Fiji Islands, could suffer economic damage averaging at least US$23 -US$52 million a year by 2050 (i.e. equivalent to 2-4% of Fiji’s GDP). Another best example of the impact of climate change to the lost of agricultural production or food production was Cyclone Ami, for example, caused over US$35 million in lost crops in Fiji in 2003.

Furthermore, climate change exposures are likely to affect the health status of millions of people, particularly those with low adaptive capacity, through: increases in malnutrition and consequent disorders, with implications for child growth and development; increased deaths, disease and injury due to heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts; the increased burden of diarrhoeal disease; and the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone related to climate change. Moreover, climate change may cause the spread of disease such as malaria and dengue fever. For instance, warming in Papua New Guinea is likely to cause a contraction of the cooler malaria free zone in the highlands. Studies show positive associations between temperature increases and diarrhoea, and between warmer sea-surface temperatures and ciguatera outbreaks. Since the health services in most Pacific islands states already ill equipped and struggling to cope with existing health problems, it is unlikely there will be capacity to effectively respond to the increased health burden caused by climate change.

Furthermore, climate change was likely to increase the rates of diarrhoeal disease in Fiji and Kiribati due to decreases in rainfall and increases in temperature. No evidence was presented to show relationship between flooding or heavy rainfall and cases of diarrhoea. yet, the 1997/98 drought (associated with El-Nino) had widespread impact, including malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency in children and infants.

In addition, we may see the implications or impacts of the climate change to the Pacific islands states in case of Vanuatu. According to Edward Natapei, the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, more than 80%, of the population of Vanuatu depend on the land for their subsistence farming and contributions to the national economy. Their traditional farming practices have been shaped by their subsistence needs and climatic conditions. Land has always been culturally precious to the Ni-Vanuatu mainly because rights to its ownership and use form a central part of their culture and traditional governance. Increasingly considerable pressure is being placed on access to land by the rapidly growing population.

Above has discussed, the three fundamental pillars of human security are natural resources and ecosystems, food, and health. According to United Nations University writer Christian Webersik (2010) identifies climate change as a variable that can drastically undermine each of these pillars, with stark consequences. “A poor response to natural hazards and may create anti-government grievances in societies with weak governance structures and stricken by political violence and poverty.”

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The impact of sea level rise from climate change could be catastrophic for the Pacific islands states. The increasing of population growth, shrinking of land mass and declining of income opportunities may result to migration from outer to central islands or to other countries. The unpleasant impacts of climate change increase the rate of domestic migration and relocation, with people from rural areas and remote islands moving to urban centres. The number is growing as people in rural areas are losing their livelihoods and land because of natural disasters and sea level rise. The International Federation of the Red Cross in the World Disasters Report 2001 estimated that more people are now forced to leave their homes because of environmental disasters than war.

According to Jonathan Adams in his article written for the New York Times (2007), some experts warn that, ultimately, these issues will combine to power a wave of emigrants fleeing the Pacific islands. Indeed, there are already signs of flight: according to a study by the Australian government, applications for New Zealand residency from eligible Pacific island nations shot up sharply in 2005 and 2006, compared with 2003.

Afifi and Warner (2008) find a statistically significant link between environmental degradation and outward migration. Due to the extreme weather events and disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, and sea level rise in the source country are found to have a significant and positive link with migration flows. For example, flooding in the source country is found to increase migration, but this relationship is not statistically significant. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change report noted that climate change is likely to very likely to cause higher maximum temperatures, more intense rainfall events, increased risk of drought, increase in tropical cyclone peak wind intensities, and an increasing number of floods in some areas.

Tuvalu is the best example to explain the impacts of climate change in the case of migration. Economic factors associated with environmental factors, forcing people from Tuvalu to migrate to new place, this will result in a brain drain. Tuvalu already has an ad hoc agreement with New Zealand to allow phased relocation and many residents have been leaving the islands. The New Zealand government already takes in a quota of Tuvaluans every year, many of whom have found jobs in the strawberry fields and packing plants around Auckland. It has assured Tuvalu that it will absorb the entire population if the worst comes to pass. That is a lifeline that many similarly threatened island nations – including Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

There was a debate on the issue of climate change, “Climate change Threatens International Peace, Pacific islands Tell UN Debate,” on 26 September 2008. The Pacific Island states voice out at the General Assembly on the issue of climate change, promising to table a draft resolution during the climate session that will call on the United Nations to scrutinize the threat posed by climate change to international peace and security. Prime Minister Feleti Vaka’uta Sevele of Tonga, addressed to the Assembly’s annual General Debate to urge other Member States outside the region to show their support for the draft resolution. “The prospect of climate refugees from some of the Pacific Island Forum countries is no longer a prospect but a reality, with relocations of communities due to sea level rise already taking place,” he said. The resolution is expected to ask United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to commission a report on climate change and security, and to invite the Security Council and the General Assembly to work together on possible recommendations to deal with any problems identified. In addition, Prime Minister of Samoa, Tuila’epa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi, urged countries to convert the commitments they made about greenhouse gas reduction into reality. “Only through selfless and concerted efforts by all countries led by the major greenhouse gas emitters can we have a fighting chance of lessening the destructive impact of climate change,” he said, adding that it also enhances the chances of a credible agreement beyond the current Kyoto Protocol. Derek Sikua, Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister said he feared that the magnitude of climate change has already outgrown the existing capacity of the UN system to respond. Many smaller countries were being left to find their own solution for themselves against the impact of climate change, as regional groups and other organizations charted their own course. The Prime Minister called for the UN’s Small Islands Developing States Unit to be strengthened so that it can help countries, such as those in the Pacific Ocean facing rising sea levels, with special needs.

There are a lot of actions was taken by many institution bodies to overcome this problem, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change has changed its initial position on the likely patterns of migration in response to increased disasters and negative effects of climate change. The second change is recognition that physical vulnerability to climate change constitutes only one factor in a person’s overall vulnerability to environmental hazards.

Political Instability

The nations of the Pacific are, in general, developing island states that are geographically distributed and economically varied. The level of development of the Forum’s island member countries varies considerably across the region as does the quality of governance. Access to resources is often difficult due to the geographic distances and resources are often scarce and in demand. Climate change is increasing the unpredictability of weather patterns, such as increasing the incidence and intensity of cyclones. Political stability is volatile in many of the regions nations especially to Pacific islands region. Across the region, the population demographics are changing with the average age reducing; while education and access to it is improving opportunities for youth are still limited compared to the more developed nations of the world.

If a country becomes unstable and no longer capable to respond to other challenges, it will diminish the capacity of the country to peacefully interfere domestic and international conflicts. The multiple stresses may give rise of to several conflicts constellations, where the interactions of climate change with other factors increase the risk of violent conflicts. Disputes over land as a result of inequalities and frictions between traditional and introduced of land management system as well as intra-state migration may become aggravated.

Many conflicts were related to land issues. However, the scale and intensity of conflicts and the level of instability vary across the regions. The adverse impacts of climate change alter the distribution and quality of natural resources such as fresh water, arable land, coastal territory, and marine resources. These changes can increase competition for scarce resources, with the increased possibility of armed conflict. Existing tensions within the Pacific islands states will similarly be heightened especially in already unstable areas and can endanger national security as well as be a threat to international peace and security.

According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (2001), owing to factors of limited size, availability, and geology and topography, water resources in small islands are extremely vulnerable to changes and variations in climate. Moreover, a reduction in the size of the island, resulting from land loss accompanying sea level rise, is likely to reduce the thickness of the freshwater lens on atolls by as much as 29%. Increases in demand related to population and economic growth, in particular tourism continue to place serious stress on existing water resources.

Shifting boundaries of existing land are particularly problematic for communities with collectively owned lands. The blurring of boundaries can intensify the disputes between communities over land ownership and usage, as communities may fight to re-claim their share of natural resources. This could lead to conflicts between individuals and communities as they try to redistribute resources, and is likely to evolve into a security threat if not dealt with in a transparent and equitable manner.

Multipliers of Conflicts

Climate change is not like other conventional security threats. The combination of the threats stemming from climate change impacts of increased water and food insecurities, rising sea levels, and increased extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and cyclones, will create risks to national and regional security as well as to international peace and security. Because climate change has multiple impacts in many different areas, it has the potential to cause multiple problems simultaneously and erode already fragile conditions, both environmental and economic.

The combination of increased disease due to lack of potable water, flooding and coastal erosion, lack of food, and migration will continue to escalate into humanitarian crises that will strain government resources around the globe and especially within the Pacific. In the Solomon Islands, the combination of various adverse impacts of climate change led to armed conflict, requiring the deployment of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). As environmental migration is usually internal and short term, the possible for instigating conflict is quite minimal. Yet, unstable urban and rural demographics are related to higher risks of civil war and low level communal conflicts during periods of environmental stress are common.

The Future of Pacific Islands – The Survival of Pacific Islands

Environmentalists have warned that the effects of climate change, caused by a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, will include thermal expansion and a meltdown of glaciers. That could lead to the rising of the sea level and extreme weather events and disasters, and would be devastating for countries such as Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and China.

However, the small nations of the Pacific, where some of the world’s lowest-lying islands are situated, would be the first to be swamped. Those considered mostly in danger, as well as Kiribati, are Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and parts of Papua New Guinea. Dozens of families have been forced to move, dismantling their wooden huts piece by piece and reassembling them further back from the water. Now the population is being squeezed into an ever narrower strip of land between the lagoon and the Pacific. Environmentalists have predicted that the effects of rising sea levels will be borne disproportionately by the world’s most poor countries, which make a insignificant contribution to climate change and are least well equipped to adapt.

A report this month by the CSIRO, Australia’s government scientific organisation, forecast that climate change in the Asia-Pacific region could see the rising of sea level by up to 19 inches by 2070. So, there are possibilities that small islands states in the Pacific islands could be sunk in the future.

So, what are the options that the Pacific islands have? For those islanders who are worried about the future, have been leaving their island for other Pacific states like Australia and New Zealand. In the case of the New Zealand, their government has a scheme entitled Pacific Access Category (PAC) that allocate up to 75 Tuvaluans per year to settle in New Zealand as Climate Changed refugees.

According to Oxfam, in order to overcome or at least reduce the impact of climate change, they have outlined a few adaptation projects. Among the adaptation are protective planting, crops diversifications, water harvesting, irrigation and water reservoirs, community climate-proofing programmes and so forth. In the protective planting what they do is they plant trees to combat erosion problem. For example, in Tuvalu, work is being done in response to the flooding of agricultural land. Communities are drawing on local knowledge, with a strong focus on planting mangroves to stabilise the coastal environment. Activities like this are developed using local people’s traditional methods rather than new and unfamiliar ones. Moreover, on Fiji and Kiribati, mangroves are being planted to stabilise coastlines and riverbanks to help combat the effects of erosion.

On the other hands, in crop diversification programme, the Members of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network (TuCAN) are looking at climate adaptation initiatives to address issues like coastal erosion and food security. Root crops like taro take years to be harvested; with the current sea surges, the salty water gets into the taro pits and kills the plants. The group is looking at bringing in species from other countries to help overcome this problem. Climate change adaptation in the Pacific involves, among other projects, rainwater harvesting and desalination. The Tuvalu government’s Water and Sanitation Strategy includes the construction of around 300 large rainwater tanks in the capital, Funafuti. Households are instructed in the maintenance of roof catchment and guttering and the management of the collected water for domestic use.

Following the Samoa tsunami in 2009, Oxfam provided affected families with rainwater harvesting materials. Guttering and collection tanks were provided for families who had relocated inland, and the system was incorporated into the design of new homes. This means an ongoing supply of clean water, with communities able to respond to future water shortages.

Small grant schemes in Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga provide funds for community-initiated climate change adaptation projects. In Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu, communities have increased their water storage capacity by constructing rainwater tanks. On the drought-prone island of Aniwa in Vanuatu, communities have built small solar desalination stills capable of producing enough fresh water for drinking.

In the Pacific islands itself, there are many innovative community-based projects initiate by Oxfam that aim to climate-proof villages and develop resilience to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters. For instance in Fiji, the Fijian village of Korotarase is located on low-lying, swampy land alongside a river and beach on the northern island of Vanua Levu. In March 2007, heavy upstream rainfall combined with a king tide and the village was flooded. The people of Korotarase have since joined with five other Fijian villages and are working to climate-proof their homes and communities in preparation for future impacts caused by tidal surges, coastal erosion or flooding. They are trialling salt-resistant varieties of staple foods such as taro; planting mangroves, native grasses and other trees to halt coastal and riverbank erosion; protecting fresh water wells from salt-water intrusion; and relocating homes and community buildings away from vulnerable coastlines.

Another example is Kiribati. The Republic of Kiribati is one of the world’s least developed countries (LDCs). The low-lying nation is made up of 33 atolls and reef islands stretching 5000 kilometres across the central Pacific. The Kiribati Adaptation Program is made up of a range of actions, including raising awar


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