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  • Writer's pictureJames Cox

Climate change in the Pacific and implications for peace

This week I have been in Wellington, New Zealand at Victoria University’s Pacific Climate Change Conference ‘In the Eye of the Storm’. It’s been a fascinating and intense week that has brought together discussions of the climate science and the social and economic impacts. It’s been very much a ‘pasifika’ event, run and attended by people from almost every Pacific Island nation. First hand experience of climate change has been very much to the fore here.

(Pictured is Kiribati's very impressive President Anote Tong, perhaps the world's foremost politician advocate for climate action, giving the opening keynote address.)

The conference sessions have examined the effects of climate change on land, culture and resilience. I found a lot of what was discussed to be very confronting, both as I faced up to what the science is telling us, and what Pacific people, especially those from low lying island states like Kiribati and Tuvalu, are facing.

The role that climate change will play in driving conflict in the region was by and large not a prominent part of the discussion. Some things did come out though. These are some of the things that have come up:

  • For many Pacific people, climate change is intimately bound up with colonialism and capitalism. The drive for economic growth powers the production of greenhouse gases through the extraction of natural resources, the burning of fossil fuels and so on. They see it as an extension of the conflict between colonial powers (old and new) and indigenous Pacific societies. Turning over the status quo is, they argue, essential for any meaningful decarbonisation and elimination of greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone can do their bit, but this deeper structural change is needed. This is a really important idea, and requires at the least that remaining fossil fuels be kept in the ground.

  • Movement of people across the Pacific is not new, but it takes on different characteristics in the context of climate change. Speakers from Kiribati and Samoa told how past movements between islands were facilitated by relationships and shared identities. In travelling, you knew that you would be welcomed at your destination, and what you had to offer. With the certainty of large scale movements of people these relationships are not so strong. If (when) 160,000 people – the populations of Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu – are forced to leave their homes, will they have a welcome on their arrival in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji or elsewhere? Are the relationships with their new hosts strong enough? Can they be made to be?

  • Pacific people do not want to be climate ‘refugees’ as this implies loss of agency and dependence on the kindness of strangers. They want to move on their own terms, cultures intact and to offer themselves as constructive members of their new host countries. Being labelled as refugees also implies that they cannot go home. Their movement poses difficult questions of sovereignty over their drowned lands and marine territories. Can they forge ‘non-territorial state entities’? Will they have ‘portable sovereignty’? What does this imply for what they bring to their new homes, and for their relationship with their old one? I have a hope that a people that brings sovereign control over significant ocean resources could be welcomed and respected in any country in the Pacific community.

Climate change and conflict are bound together in many ways, and in more ways than were discussed this week. One powerful example that was discussed this week was that of West Papua, where unrestrained mining and burning of forests has despoiled the land, contributed hugely to greenhouse gas emissions and deepened the conflict between West Papua’s indigenous population and the Indonesian government. Others given less attention include competition for increasingly scarce livalble land and fresh water resources, resistance to forced movement, conflict between new arrivals and host communities, reduced resilience to disaster and no doubt more. Perhaps this will be a feature of the next Pacific Climate Change Conference.

Finally, some science. Sea levels have already risen by 20cm over the last century, and will rise by 30cm more by 2050. A total rise by one metre is very likely by the end of the century. This will wash over low lying islands (of which there are many), engender more frequent king tides, wash away seawalls and destroy fresh water sources. These things are already happening in Kiribati. Changed weather patterns will mean that dry places in the Pacific become drier, and wet ones will be wetter. El Nino events will become less predictable and more extreme. It's also worth noting that 'climate change' is only one of nine possible 'planetary boundaries'. This very informative - and sobering - framework was introduced to to the conference by Prof Will Steffen from the Australian Climate Council and provides important context to the challenges we face.

Our last opportunity to act is now. These next ten years are the time when the choices that we all make – but especially the world’s big polluters – will determine whether global temperature increase is limited to less than two degrees, or will rise to as much as four.

The Pacific region and its peoples both live closer to nature than most of us, and are being affected by a changing climate sooner and more severely. They have the ability and the opportunity to lead the way, if the rest of us have the ears to listen.

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