Aerial view of some of the islands an islets of Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. One of the first groups of islands that will disappear due to sea level rise because of climate change. Ebeye Island is one of the most populated pieces of land on Earth.

As the oceans rise, the Pacific refuses to be left behind

To give the Pacific a fighting chance Australia and NZ need to take a stand, writes a Fijian litigator and activist.

Climate change is now an everyday reality for the Pacific. Its impact on our countries is undeniable. To remain within our own borders in years to come, we need radical global and collective transitions. Yet even with the constant threat of climate change and the ongoing uncertainty over our communities’ futures, daily bread-and-butter developmental issues still pose significant barriers to our progress. A transition may hurtle us out of ‘developing’ or ‘least developed’ (LDC) status and firmly situate us as ‘developed’ countries, thereby further reducing our vulnerability to climate change. However, this same transition may undermine the development we have achieved thus far, rendering us unable to adequately combat, mitigate or adapt to further climate impacts. This vital transition faces numerous implementation hurdles in the Pacific, ranging from regional diversity, culture and history to the backyard politics of Australia and New Zealand and the increasing inroads made by China.

Viewing the Pacific as small is to look only at our land and discount the value of our oceans. It is home to approximately 12 million people, spread out over 30,000 islands and 30 million square kilometres of ocean. Roughly 1,000 of the islands are inhabited, and there are 22 self-governing nations. The Pacific also includes 13 world heritage sites, 35 biodiversity hotspots and 3,200 threatened species of flora and fauna – as well as the world’s widest linguistic diversity. As a result, addressing the impacts of climate change and transitioning our economies will not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution. This transition and its implementation needs to be developed to fit the specific conditions of each unique Pacific country – especially those classed as small island developing states (SIDS) or LDCs, which face greater risks from these consequences. This will be particularly important in ensuring the success of these transitions and our ability to thrive while implementing and undertaking them.

An everyday reality

The Pacific is often painted as the poster-child of climate change, but that shouldn’t entirely be seen as a negative thing, because it’s the most concrete example of what the rest of the world has yet to witness or feel. Sinking islands are already a reality for us, blurring the lines between long-term and short-term climate impacts. Saying this, however, is not a means to play on the sympathies of aid and donor partners. Instead, it should highlight that the Pacific faces disproportionate impacts from climate change compared to other regions of the world. Most of our populations and vital infrastructure are located on low-lying coasts, which makes them more vulnerable to coastal erosion, wave overreach and natural disasters. Sea-level rise, which will likely continue well past the year 2100, is a driver of food and water insecurity in the region, due to the greater likelihood of freshwater lenses becoming salinated. Climate-induced natural disasters and sea-level rise, as well as increasing droughts, make it more difficult to rely on tourism and agriculture for national incomes, as these industries are highly sensitive to environmental changes. These same impacts are also bleaching our reefs and further reducing already dwindling fish stocks.

In some islands, watching the bones of your family members slowly bob in the current, as graves are washed out to sea, has become a daily occurrence. As is finding yourself standing ankle- or knee-deep in seawater in your living-room. Communities are already shifting in response to these climate-driven impacts: in February 2014, Vunidogoloa in the Fijian province of Cakaudrove became the first formal village relocation project as a result of coastal climate impacts. This move marked the beginning of planned village relocations in Fiji as an adaptation strategy. But because of the geographical size of many Pacific islands, internal relocation options like this one are limited, if at all possible.

Aerial view of some of the islands an islets of Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands.

Climate crossroads

The politics of the Pacific must also be taken into account: how will the low-emissions transition affect nations that remain in custodial relationships or are territories of other nations? This includes New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, which are classed as overseas lands of France; Tokelau, a self-administering New Zealand territory; the unincorporated US territories of American Samoa and Guam; the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth in political union with the US; and West Papua, now recognised as a province of Indonesia. So much direct and ongoing influence from the bygone era of colonialism poses a direct threat to Pacific nations’ ability to collectively address climate change and transition to low-emissions economies. Many of those in custodial arrangements find themselves hamstrung by former colonial powers in making climate change decisions; some are not even recognised as sovereign nations. Climate change highlights significant lacunas within our international legal system, threatening our continued recognition as states, and our sovereignty over our islands and oceans.

Further to this, how will the transition affect non-indigenous people who live in the Pacific? Society often jumps at the idea of climate change refugees and relocation. We talk about Fiji taking in people from Tuvalu and Kiribati, we talk about migration to Australia, New Zealand and the US. But many ethnic groups already call the Pacific home, having been here for decades if not centuries – and in many cases such people are still viewed as diaspora populations. The cultural identity of groups like Fiji Indians and numerous Asian-Pacific communities is strongly intertwined with the Pacific. Yet these groups will never be classified as ‘indigenous’. By failing to see or address this diversity, we run the risk of creating a climate cultural apartheid, whether intentionally or not.

A large body of climate literature, when examining the Pacific, often homogenises our populations with labels like ‘Pacific islanders’, ‘Pacific peoples’, ‘Fijians’, ‘Samoans’, etc. By failing to account for diversity and acknowledge both indigenous and non-indigenous people, we run the risk of picking and choosing who stays and who goes, if relocation ever becomes necessary – simply because some groups are seen as more or less ‘Pacific’. Moreover, this argument can even extend to rural versus urban populations. Are those who live in rural communities, practising subsistence or more traditional ways of life, more authentically ‘Pacific’? Historically we have seen the level of disenfranchisement that can occur when groups are relocated without proper consideration, such as the Banaban or Ocean Islanders being relocated to Rabi Island in Fiji.

A leap of faith

Many in the Pacific increasingly recognise climate change and the threat it poses to our way of life. Yet in a region often classified as developing or under-developed, action on climate change is sometimes overridden by basic bread-and-butter issues. Many parts are still without access to water, electricity, cellular service or the internet. Development and sustainability are globally no longer seen as being incompatible. The Pacific will not sacrifice its own development for a low-emissions transition. We will not revert to subsistence economies to ensure its emissions remain negligible, while other nations take a business-as-usual approach.

Whatever path we choose to take to a low-emissions transition, we must ensure it can survive the significant number of natural disasters the region faces. If transition solutions, whether they be new technology or infrastructure, are damaged, they must be easily and readily fixable, using locally sourced materials and expertise. Solutions that require vast amounts of time and money, or the importation of parts or overseas ‘experts’, will not do. People in the Pacific have a way of abandoning methods that don’t work and returning to tried and true ways. Often during blackouts, they automatically revert to kerosene lamps, diesel generators, candles and open fires. So the risks and uncertainties involved with new technologies must be taken into account. Solutions must also work in remote and isolated communities and must continue to function, even when these communities are cut off during natural disasters or political unrest. If things do not work, or if they break down easily and require resources beyond the means of the country to fix or maintain, they will soon be abandoned and so too will the low-emissions transition.

One of the biggest areas of concern is the communities or industries that are highly dependent on extractive fossil fuels. For the Pacific, this means our transport sector – the way we transport goods, services and people, and protect our borders. The region has the highest global dependency on imported fossil fuels at around 99 per cent. Of this, the transport sector accounts for about 70 per cent, with electricity generation using a further 20 per cent. As a result, the transport sector is the largest regional contributor to gross greenhouse gas emissions. But the focus of emission reductions so far has been on electricity generation, with far smaller efforts being undertaken in transport – which, moreover, is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts and natural disasters.

In developed countries, the greening of transport is viewed as shifting towards public rail systems and electrification, increasing fuel efficiency, utilising alternative fuels or adapting land and urban policy planning. However, Pacific passenger or cargo rail transport may not be suitable for such changes, while biofuels will only be suitable in places with available biomass. It would also mean upgrading roads and electrical grids, and developing new infrastructure to cater for the influx of new technology.

These make for difficult choices; however, if we fail to properly undertake and implement a low-emissions transition we risk increasing the cost of living, travel, energy and energy access in the Pacific. And those costs would once again affect society’s most vulnerable. Additionally, in light of the strong communal ties to land that many have, we need to be ready for the possibility of people being marginalised or removed from their land altogether. Alternatively and more positively, this transition may create new jobs and industries in the Pacific, especially through industry realignments or technology changes.

With all these factors in mind, then, the Pacific above all others must walk the talk. We are demanding adherence to the Paris Agreement and the Paris Rulebook. We are demanding that countries, companies and conglomerates do everything in their power to keep emissions within a 1.5°C warming threshold. We are demanding a right to a future. In doing so, we must also hold ourselves to the same standards we demand of others. But we must not fall back into old rhetoric that has plagued the climate change discourse since before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s inception: the idea that allowing developing countries to develop will undermine all efforts to reduce emissions. Conversely, we cannot allow developed countries to be so passive in their transitions that they undermine developing countries’ efforts to transform into developed but low-emissions economies. Specifically, we need to ensure that Pacific partners such as Australia and New Zealand are fully committed to this transition alongside us.

Over 30,000 people rallied and marched in Melbourne on Sunday 21 September 2014 as part of the global Peoples climate protest for action on climate change. It was one of over 2500 protests in 150 countries around the world.

Friends, foes and frenemies

Australia and New Zealand at their heart are not Pacific islands, but they are indelibly a part of Oceania, sharing bonds of friendship, kinship and partnership with Pacific nations. However, with the urgent need for clear and decisive action on climate change, these relationships are becoming increasingly strained. Pacific leaders are more and more frustrated with Australia’s inaction: calls for it to phase out coal seem to fall on deaf ears. Australia is also expected to far exceed its emission reduction target by 2030, making a transition from them even more unlikely.

While Australia has provided significant funding to climate action in the Pacific, throwing cash at the problem without contributing to overall emission reductions makes such aid somewhat redundant. Australia is less and less focused on maintaining an active partnership with the Pacific, as it is with keeping China out of its backyard. Its approach is a tripartite one of economics, security and retention of regional dominance – not one of climate action and support for a low-emissions transition, let alone assisting the Pacific in achieving this.

As Australia increasingly lags behind, New Zealand has recently begun re-prioritising the Pacific, in what it calls a ‘Pacific Reset’. Compared to Australia, it has been more partnership-oriented with the Pacific, due in part to its having a stronger ‘Pacific identity’. Under its present government, there are positive indications that it is willing to transition to a low-emissions economy, and do so alongside the Pacific. Overall, New Zealand seems to view its own domestic reduction of greenhouse gases as a means to contribute to effective climate action in the Pacific.

However, to attribute its reorientation towards the Pacific solely to climate change and a change of government would be misleading. Much like Australia, part of New Zealand’s strategic policy in the region, climate or otherwise, has also been impacted by China’s growing presence. Moreover, New Zealand is still being called on to do more, partly because of its high per-capita emissions. Yet, as Australia turns away from any semblance of climate action, New Zealand is increasingly looked to as a beacon of partnership and an international ally in surmounting the transition hurdles yet to come.

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Beyond galvanising partnerships in this transition we must also ensure that it is fair and equitable for the Pacific. One way that Australia and New Zealand have both sought to address this is through their policies around climate change refugees. Both have had an ongoing flirtation with work and migration pathways such as seasonal worker and visa programmes. New Zealand is also considering a new climate change refugee visa category.

Realistically, these do next to nothing to help the Pacific’s low-emissions transition or even combat climate change in the region. If anything, it both feeds and buys into the rhetoric of sinking islands. Internationally we have to stop utilising the factually and linguistically incorrect label of ‘climate change refugees’ as an excuse for inaction and ineffective action. The overuse of such simplistic terminology is overshadowing more immediately viable action. It also reinforces the concept of climate change refugees, one which does not exist in law. While these visa and migration pathways are increasingly broached as ways to address climate change in the Pacific, they are not solutions to it. Instead they have the same effect as putting a very small ambulance at the bottom of a very large cliff. Where these programmes allow upskilling and permanent migration they are more favourable, yet their scale and criteria are too restrictive to be effective, let alone address climate change. When it comes down to it, they detract from meaningful action that will help keep us within the 1.5°C threshold.

The science couldn’t be clearer: the human race has a dwindling window for reducing the risk of global catastrophic climate change, so needs to make significant and immediate decisions. That leaves us with only one solution: a rapid and just transition to low-emissions economies, globally. For us in the Pacific, a region as isolated as it is diverse, failing this transition could mean our people being forced from their lands and becoming stateless or displaced peoples. To give us a fighting chance, we need to ensure that our major diplomatic partners, Australia and New Zealand, are willing to stand and act with us to ensure that this transition is met. The Pacific won’t be left behind and we won’t sacrifice our development to allow other nations a business-as-usual approach, while we face the disproportional impacts of climate change. Even if we manage to break our global addiction to fossil fuels, it may already come too late for some parts of the Pacific, where we face anthropogenically driven climate impacts for years to come. What everyone must remember is that, in the words of Selina Leem, “sometimes when you want to make a change, then it is necessary to turn the world upside down, because it is not for the better but it is simply for the best”.

This is an extract from A Careful Revolution: Towards a Low-Emissions Future edited by David Hall and published by Bridget Williams Books.


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