Climate change and development in the South Pacific

There is general agreement that the consequences of global climate change will be felt most severely in the developing world (e.g. CCD 2009, DFID 2009). In discussions of vulnerability to climate change, particular attention has focused on the South Pacific, a region encompassing fifteen countries classified by the UN as Small Island Developing States (Figure 1). These fifteen states are all at least moderately poor, with a median GDP of US$1402 (Ebi et al 2006), and five are Least Developed Countries characterised by particularly low income, poor standards of human welfare, and economic vulnerability (World Bank Development Group 2006). Human existence on the tiny islands that make up many South Pacific countries has always been ecologically precarious (Diamond 2005), and the region has been described as a "global front line" (CCD 2009) in the struggle of developing countries to adapt to climate change.

Figure 1: Small island developing states in the South Pacific. Least Developed Countries are highlighted in bold. (UN 2003, World Bank Development Group 2006)


The changes

The South Pacific is already experiencing changes in climate. Average temperatures in the region increased by between 0.3 and 0.8°C during the past century, and rainfall patterns appear to have altered since the 1970s, with some islands becoming wetter and others drier (Nurse & Sem 2001). Temperatures are predicted to rise by a further 2°C by mid-century, and rainfall patterns will continue to change, although there is uncertainty about whether there will be an overall increase or decrease in rainfall (IPCC 2008). Climate change is expected to lead to an increase in the frequency of El Niño-type weather patterns, bringing hotter and wetter conditions to the eastern Pacific and drier conditions further west (Nurse & Sem 2001). Increasing global temperatures are also projected to lead to a rise in sea level of between 18 and 59cm by 2100 (IPCC 2007).

Tropical cyclones are the most significant natural hazard in the South Pacific (World Bank 2006), and whilst there is no evidence that the frequency of cyclones will increase, their intensity is projected to increase by up to 10% as a result of global warming (IPCC 2007).


The consequences

For low-lying countries such as Tuvalu, in which the highest point is a mere 4.5m about sea level, the projected rise in sea levels obviously poses serious risks (Lewis 1989). Rising sea levels also threaten higher islands whose population and infrastructure is concentrated in coastal areas. On Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, for example, a 0.3m rise in mean sea level would inundate only 1.1% of the land area but displace 4.3% of the population. A rise in sea level would also increase the area at risk from storm surges (Mimura 1999). However, probably the most immediate danger to low-lying islands is from drought caused by changing rainfall patterns, since the water resources of these islands are generally very limited, with inhabitants dependent either on groundwater 'lenses', which are vulnerable to over-abstraction and saltwater intrusion, or on small rainwater collection tanks (Burns 2002). In Kiribati, which is currently experiencing a three-year drought, water shortages are not only threatening agriculture and domestic supplies but are reportedly leading to social unrest (Government of Kiribati 2009).

The large islands of the south-western Pacific are less vulnerable to such threats, being large and mountainous and having more reliable water resources. However, low-lying and densely-populated areas within these countries are at risk: inhabitants of the tiny Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea recently became the first in the region to be evacuated due to the effects of rising sea levels (PINA 2009).

Changes in temperature and rainfall may facilitate the spread of disease. Comparisons between Pacific islands suggest that the incidence of diarrhoeal illness increases with temperature (Singh et al 2001), and in Tuvalu, the effect of drought on water supplies and sanitation reportedly exacerbates a variety of illnesses (McKenzie et al 2005). Heavy rainfall during storms can also lead to contamination of water supplies (Ebi et al 2006). In the large islands of the south-western Pacific, where malaria is endemic, a rise in temperature may allow the spread of the disease into upland areas where the mosquito vector does not presently thrive. An increase in the incidence of malaria in the Papua New Guinea highlands since the 1980s has been widely attributed to climate change, although altered patterns of land use and a breakdown in disease-control efforts were probably the major causes (Mueller et al 2005). Warm years have also coincided with outbreaks of dengue fever in South Pacific countries (Ebi et al 2006).

Climate change is likely to damage coral reefs and mangrove ecosystems in the South Pacific, with a variety of negative consequences including greater coastal erosion, loss of protection from storms, damage to fisheries, and lost opportunities for eco-tourism (Coles 2008, Gilman et al 2006). Corals are threatened both by bleaching events (triggered by high surface water temperatures) and acidification (due to rising CO2 levels), with large areas of reef in the region projected to be "pushed beyond their normal environmental limits" by the second half of the 21st century (Coles 2008).

A worsening of climate-related disasters would impose major costs on South Pacific countries. The average cyclone already costs the region US$75.9 million (World Bank 2006), with impacts on individual countries frequently exceeding the countries' annual GDP. Fortunately, evidence from Samoa suggests that such costs can be significantly reduced through appropriate risk management (World Bank 2006).

Climate change threatens development in the South Pacific not only through natural disasters, but by endangering the very narrow range of industries upon which the region depends, which include agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism. Crop yields are likely to be affected (FAO 2008), although there has been a lack of research on the way in which important local crops - particularly tuberous staples such as taro and yam - respond to alterations in climate (Miglietta et al 2000). Any decrease in yields would have a severe impact on Pacific countries where both subsistence agriculture and the growing of crops for export are vital to islanders' livelihoods (FAO 2008, Sharma 2006). Traditionally, Pacific island communities mitigated the threat of climate-related disasters by planting a variety of crops, which differed in their vulnerability to particular hazards, but in some areas the modernisation of agriculture and land use has reduced this diversity and thus weakened food security (Barnett 2008a). Forest growth is likely to be enhanced by rising atmospheric CO2 levels, but this effect may be offset by climatic stress, and the net impact of climate change on forestry is largely unknown (FAO 2008). Fisheries, which provide the major source of export earnings for some Pacific countries, will also be affected by climate change (Nurse & Sem 2001). Catches of tuna, the most valuable species, are expected to increase in the western Pacific and decrease further east, benefiting some countries at the expense of others (World Bank 2000). Also at risk is the tourist industry, with the likelihood that warmer winters in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, together with increased disease risk on some islands and well-intentioned international efforts to curb air travel in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, will discourage holidaymaking in the South Pacific (Barnett 2008a, UNFCCC 2007).


The response

Meeting the special needs of small island developing states is a target under the internationally-agreed Millennium Development Goals (UN 2009), and aid to the poorest of the region's countries has increased significantly since 2002 (Figure 2). In coping with climate change, Pacific islanders have a particular claim to the world's sympathy, since the problem is largely not of their own making: per capita carbon emissions in the South Pacific are a mere quarter of the world average (UNFCCC 2007).

Figure 2: Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) received by South Pacific small island developing states, in real terms, 1990-2007 (UN n.d., Sahr 2009).

With their limited resources, small island countries will depend heavily on foreign assistance in adapting to change and coping with climate-related disasters (Witter et al 2002, Muir 2006). The Alliance of Small Island States has proposed that compensation for such disasters could come from an international insurance scheme, to which other countries would contribute according to their responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, although the difficulty of apportioning liabilities would make such a scheme hard to implement (UNFCCC 2007). Care must also be taken to ensure that short-term assistance given in the aftermath of disasters does not discourage long-term adaptation (Barnett 2008b).

Adaptation may involve constructing sea defences, improving water supplies, modifying agricultural practises, discouraging the building of homes and infrastructure in vulnerable localities, and establishing climate monitoring systems (UNFCCC 2007). The five Least Developed Countries in the region have already developed National Adaptation Programmes of Action to help plan their responses to climate change (UNFCCC 2008), and submitted a list of 38 possible adaptation projects for consideration by potential donors, with a total price tag of US$52.6 million (UNFCCC n.d.b).

Pacific islands currently depend heavily on imported oil for energy supplies (UNFCCC 2007), and efforts to promote renewable energy use in the region - providing both global environmental benefits and local economic ones - could qualify for investment under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) established by the Kyoto Protocol. However, of the 1,831 CDM projects currently registered worldwide, only two - a geothermal power project in Papua New Guinea and a hydroelectric scheme in Fiji - are in the South Pacific (UNFCCC n.d.a). The uneconomically small scale of potential projects, and in some cases the absence of a suitable administrative framework, has prevented the region from taking greater advantage of this opportunity (Etuati 2008, McGregor 2009).

In the worst-affected island states, adaptation to climate change may ultimately involve evacuation of islands, although clearly this is an option of last resort, as resettlement can be difficult and traumatic, especially in a region where people have strong cultural ties to their home islands (Campbell 2008). Issues of national sovereignty are at stake, and former IPCC chairman Robert Watson has warned of "possible loss of whole cultures" if small island states are evacuated due to climate change (Watson 2001).



Climate change carries a variety of serious risks for small island developing states in the South Pacific. Many risks are common to the region as a whole, but their likely impact varies between countries. Low-lying atoll countries such as Tokelau, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati will be most severely affected, particularly by rising sea levels (Figure 3), although drought is a more immediate threat. Although the widespread belief that Tuvalu will be submerged or uninhabitable by 2050 appears to be unsubstantiated, it is widely acknowledged that climate change "puts the long-term ability of humans to inhabit atolls at risk" (Barnett & Adger 2003).

Figure 3: The five countries most vulnerable to rising sea levels, out of 25 island countries ranked by Barnett & Adger (2003). Four of these five countries (Tokelau, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and Kiribati) are in the South Pacific.

With their physical vulnerability, lack of resources and low economic resilience, developing countries in the South Pacific will depend on foreign assistance in adapting to climate change. However, although these countries' environmental and developmental problems may be exacerbated by climate change, many of these problems are long-standing ones. South Pacific countries have always been exceptionally vulnerable to the forces of nature, and the resilience of the islands' inhabitants has always enabled them to survive. Perhaps the one positive outcome of climate change for South Pacific countries, and for the wider developing world, is that it has drawn international attention and sympathy towards the numerous challenges that already face people living in fragile and impoverished regions.



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This was originally written as an essay for MSc Ecological Economics at the University of Edinburgh

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