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Pacific islands are not passive victims of climate change, but will need help

More frequent disasters – such as Cyclone Pam which struck Vanuatu this year – will leave Pacific islands struggling to recover. Edgar Su/Reuters

Pacific islands are not passive victims of climate change, but will need help

More frequent disasters – such as Cyclone Pam which struck Vanuatu this year – will leave Pacific islands struggling to recover. Edgar Su/Reuters

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott attends the Pacific Island Forum summit today, attention has again turned to how the low-lying islands will deal with global warming. Pacific leaders have been highly critical of Australia’s post-2020 climate target.

A report released for the forum has argued that Australia’s approach threatens “the very survival of some Pacific nations” and is incompatible with limiting warming to 2C. Pacific leaders are calling for a more ambitious global limit of 1.5C above pre-industrial average temperatures.

Half a degree may not seem like much, but the latest scientific assessments indicate that evidence supporting the initial limit of 2C has weakened over the past decade. A goal of 1.5C may avoid some very high risks for small islands associated with 2C warming.

Failing to keep global warming to below a 1.5C increase is likely to put undue pressure on the Pacific island countries through more frequent climate- and weather-induced disasters, as well as speeding up inundation from sea-level rise.

Altered climate and weather patterns are already being observed in the Pacific region. These are expected to continue in the coming years, potentially changing the nature and frequency of disasters and their associated emergencies.

Cyclone Pam’s devastation of Vanuatu, catastrophic flooding in Kiribati and Tuvalu six months ago, and ongoing drought in Papua New Guinea serve as stark illustrations of what life in the Pacific islands may become amid future human-induced climate change.

Resilience in the Pacific

Such images have often led to Pacific islands being characterised as passive and helpless victims of climate change with no other choice but to flee from rising sea levels.

This rhetoric builds on colonial perceptions of Pacific islands suffering from geographic “smallness”, isolation and being resource-poor; notions that Pacific scholars consider belittling. There is, in fact, good reason to believe that Pacific islands and their inhabitants are not inherently vulnerable.

And while sea-level rise is perhaps the most critical driver of environmental change in the Pacific, the rate of change will still mean that in all likelihood people will still be living on low-lying atolls for at least the next 30-50 years.

The use of indigenous knowledge has allowed Pacific islanders to monitor and plan for basic needs – such as food, water, energy and shelter – and manage their livelihoods under varying climatic and weather conditions in the past.

Many people, such as the i-Kiribati, have continuously been adapting to gradually changing conditions to this day. There is no reason to suggest that they cannot continue to adapt in the future.

Incorporating both scientific and indigenous indicators or thresholds to provide some early warning of significant change will allow for timely responses to changes in resource availability or severe weather events. At a community level, this means understanding and supporting local decision-making, self-reliance and participatory processes.

The threat of more frequent disasters

However, with more frequent disasters, the social capital and resilience to withstand and overcome repeated disaster impacts is likely to be reduced, making it harder for Pacific islands to recover, in turn making them more vulnerable.

Under this scenario, indigenous knowledge and local agency will not be enough to cope with frequent impacts. Pacific islands in general have limited human resources for health and disaster response, and a lack of clear policies for requesting overseas assistance, from Australia for example, has constrained their capacity for timely responses to disasters.

External assistance for Pacific islands to cope with more frequent disasters is no doubt needed, but for the best outcomes it must complement and build on the existing capacity and norms of Pacific institutions and communities.

For example, increased incidences of future climate-induced disasters are expected to have significant implications for disaster and emergency preparedness for Pacific islands.

Research by Anna Gero and colleagues at the Institute for Sustainable Futures found that disaster-response systems in Pacific islands have in the past been enhanced by strong informal communication such as including the participation of traditional leaders and churches.

Failing to keep global warming to below a 1.5C increase will see the incidence of disasters increasing. Such a scenario will be too severe for community structures to repeatedly cope with.

As a disaster support agent in the Pacific, Australia will therefore have further demands placed on its disaster response capabilities. In addition to technical and medical support, post-disaster psychosocial support to rebuild social capital and resilience, which has in the past been neglected, will become an ever-increasing need.

Is the solution for the Pacific islands migration or resettlement? Not yet.

This drastic option can be delayed and even avoided by slowing global warming through aggressive emissions reductions. Aggressive mitigation at an international level must be part of a climate risk-reduction strategy. But Pacific islands will also need culturally appropriate adaptation support from Australia and other states that builds on the existing capacity of the islands.

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