Climate change is already having major effects on Pacific Island states, according to a new report from Oxfam, which looked at mitigation and adaptation strategies in the region and assistance from Australia and New Zealand.
The report makes clear that Pacific States, which have long been identified as some of the most vulnerable nations in the world to climate change, are facing serious impacts already from rising sea levels, altered weather patterns and rising temperatures. In many cases the impacts are a consequence of multiple causes, including human activity such as logging.
Among the impacts identified in the report:
- The Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia have all suffered major — in some cases historic — flooding or storm surges in the last twelve months, with loss of life, crop damage and, critically, damage to local infrastructure such as hospitals and roads.
- Coral bleaching is becoming more widespread and regular in Tahiti, Palau and parts of Melanesia
- Health impacts of rising temperatures are emerging: in PNG’s Western Highlands Province, the number of malaria cases increased eightfold between 2000-05
- Coastal communities in Fiji are switching to salt-resistant staple crops because of the impact of tidal surges on soil quality, and planting mangroves and grasses to halt erosion and protect freshwater wells from salt. Relocation of homes and villages is also underway.
- The seasonality of foods is changing, with some plants appearing earlier, and traditional wind patterns are being replaced with far more variable weather.
- Villages are being repeatedly relocated as a consequence of storm surges and flooding, leading to searches for unused land to relocate entire communities. The Malaita provincial government in the Solomon Islands is looking for land to resettle people from low-lying outer atoll.
- The Government of Kiribati has prepared a long-term training plan to make its people’s skills more “marketable” in other countries to assist in international relocation.
- Nations such as Tuvalu are already debating what the entire evacuation of their country will mean for its national identity — and issues such as its economic exclusion zone and UN seat.
A simultaneous report from the Australia Institute has criticised the level of Australian support for Pacific states in addressing climate change. The Rudd Government has committed $150m in funding for the region for adaptation projects, after years of climate change denial from the Howard Government, which insisted on portraying the regional through a national security “arc of instability” lens. While welcoming the Australian assistance, Oxfam suggests up to $300m a year is needed to establish serious adaptation programs, as well as a genuine commitment to keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees.
Both Oxfam and the Australia Institute note that Australia (and New Zealand) appear unwilling to develop a strategy for, or even discuss, forced migration among the Pacific’s 8 million people. The Institute reports that Department of Immigration officials as recently as October last year were explaining the lack of planning for displacement of Pacific people by climate change on the basis that mitigation was the key to addressing climate change, followed by “internal relocation” and international resettlement as a last resort.
As the Oxfam report shows, internal relocation is occurring already. It will almost certainly lead to greater internal tensions as disputes over access to land and water grow between displaced and settled communities. A number of states are politically fragile enough without the added problem of internal refugees.
All of these states face the double problem of being among the first exposed to the impacts of climate change — like Australia — but unlike us have very limited resources to deploy in mitigation and adaptation strategies, and are more vulnerable to internal tensions as the need to relocate communities in a heavily agriculture-dependent economy increases.
However, Australia and New Zealand both appear to be hoping the issue of international resettlement somehow goes away, and do not appear to have even focussed on how they will assist regional governments in dealing with the problems generated by internal relocation. But as the dominant powers of the region and the most likely destinations for people displaced by rising seas and vanishing resources, they don’t have a choice.