Climate Change and the Pacific Islands
Warming | Sea Level Rise | Climate
Annual global emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, cement manufacture and gas flaring reached a new high of nearly 23 900 million tonnes in 1996 (CDIAC 1999).
This was some 400 million tonnes more than in 1995 and nearly four times the 1950 total. Only in some countries in Europe and Central Asia has there been a significant drop in emissions during the past decade, mainly as a result of the economic crises in Eastern and Central Europe. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in 1997 reached more than 360 parts per million (ppm), the highest level in 160 000 years (Keeling and Whorf 1998).
The Pacific island countries are subjected to the impacts of global warming caused by excessive fossil fuel burning, atmospheric pollution, and deforestation of the land hemisphere. Despite a firm commitment at the UNCED in 1992 and subsequent meeting, there has been practically no progress towards reduction of greenhouse gasses. Japan is the only Annex 1 country in the Asia Pacific Region to obligate itself to reduce emissions.
It will require at least 50 years before any reduction begins to reverse predicted climate change and sea level rise. The longer the metropolitan countries delay, the worse the impacts will become; a situation that frustrates and angers Pacific island leaders. Pollution of the atmosphere by carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gasses, is the most critical environmental problem faced by our world. It is also highly contentious and has sparked heated and prolonged debate, but very little action.
The Pacific islands view climate change as a major disaster and have openly and continuously criticized the industrial nations for failure to take definitive steps towards abating pollution of the global atmosphere. There are three distinct impacts from this pollution; global warming, sea level rise and climate change. In fact, despite continuing improvement in measurements and predictive computer programmes, nobody knows exactly what the outcome of atmospheric pollution will be, but if the current range of peculiar weather and catastrophic deaths of a wide range of important ecosystems are any indication, the small islands of the world have good cause to be worried
Global warming, sea level rise, and climate change
Global warming from increasing levels of greenhouse gasses is expected to have serious effects on the Pacific Ocean. Most marine organisms live within narrow temperature regimes, and even short-term extreme temperature increase can have a dramatic impact. In the past two decades, for example, short-term extreme high temperatures contributed to a decline of coral reefs throughout the tropics. Corals, stressed by high temperatures, may eject their symbiotic algae. Coral bleaching, as this is called, renders the corals less able to cope with additional physiological stress and many of the colonies die. In November 1998, 350 reef managers, biologists and government representatives attended the International Tropical Marine Ecosystems Management Symposium in Townsville, Australia. The scientists revealed that the coral bleaching episodes of 1997-1998 were the most geographically widespread ever recorded and probably the most severe in recorded history (Wilkinson, 1998, Robbins 1999). In a 1999 International Coral Reef Conference, some scientists expressed the opinion that it was now too late to save the coral reefs of the planet even if greenhouse gas emissions could begin to drop immediately.
This has significant impacts on organisms, such as fish, that depend on the living coral structures. In 1994, elevated sea temperatures killed over 90% of the living corals of American Samoa from the intertidal zone to a depth of 10 meters and fishing catches declined drastically in the wake of the coral death.
Temperature also regulates the distribution of plants and animals. Pelagic fish commonly migrate along temperature boundaries and, in some cases, this can result in fish moving away from traditional fishing areas. Samoa, for example, is on the edge of major tuna migrations and fishing success can oscillate from extreme success to failure depending on ocean temperature regimes.
In most Pacific islands, the people, agricultural land, tourist resorts and infrastructure (including roads and airports) are concentrated in the coastal zones, and are thus especially vulnerable to any rise in sea level. Determining how severe this problem is, or might be, is complicated by natural shifts in sea level associated with the recurring ice ages. For example, over the past 16,000 years, the sea level rose some 150 metres in the Southwest Pacific reaching its present about 6,000 years ago (Broecker 1983). This would indicate an average rise of more than 15 mm/year during the 10,000 years it took for sea level to reach its present level following the last glacial epoch. According to Australia’s National Tidal Facility, the sea level rise in Australia has been stable over the past 21 years (0.30 +/- 0.06 mm/year).
Global warming is causing a rise in sea level from thermal expansion as the sea warms up and from melting of the planet’s ice caps. The latest measurements of sea level rise, derived from TOPEX/POSWIDON satellite altimeter data, show a rise of 2.1 (plus or minus 1.3) mm/year on a global basis (Nerem et al 1997). But this data is very preliminary and the authors warn that the contribution of annual and decadal mean sea level variations cannot yet be isolated, and that a longer time series of observations is needed before long-term climate change signals can be detected.
Data compiled from 11 tide gauges by Australia's National Tidal Facility at Flinders University show considerable variability. For example, in September of 1997, the tide gauge in Samoa had been operating for 56 months and showed an average sea level rise of +19.2 mm per year. But the following year, when recalculated over 68 months of operation, the average sea level rise turned out to be falling at –19.5 mm per year. In Fiji, the calculated sea level rise over 61 months of operation was +21.5 mm a year in 1997, but after 73 months was recalculated as +5.2 mm a year. The conclusion is that changes in sea level are related to a multitude of variables and no realistic trend can be detected from the data for many years to come.
Climate Change will shift rainfall patterns causing prolonged droughts in some regions. Computer models predict that global warming will shift rainfall patterns, resulting in extended drought conditions in some areas, and excessive rainfall in others. El Niño weather patterns have become more frequent since 1977, bringing an increase in rainfall in the Northeast Pacific and a rainfall decrease in the Southwest. These more frequent El Niño events are believed to be associated with global warming, although there is no clear evidence that they are not part of a long term natural cycle. Each El Niño event has resulted in water shortages and drought in Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati and Fiji. More frequent El Niño events also bring an increased risk of tropical cyclones, particularly for Tuvalu, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and French Polynesia.Costs of climate change
The potential socio-economic impacts of climate change on the smaller Pacific island countries were estimated in a series of vulnerability studies. Depending on the worst case scenario (one metre sea level rise), the studies suggest that sea level rise will have negative impacts on tourism, freshwater availability and quality, aquaculture, agriculture, human settlements, financial services and human health. Storm surges are likely to have a harmful impact on low-lying islands.
Low lying coastal areas of all islands are especially vulnerable to a rising sea level, as well as to changes in rainfall, storm frequency and intensity. Inundation, flooding, erosion and intrusion of sea water are among the likely impacts. These catastrophes would result in economic and social costs beyond the capacity of most Pacific island countries and threaten the very existence of small atoll countries. Shifts in rainfall regimes and any increase in tropical cyclone intensity and frequency greatly amplify the impact of sea level rise. A rise of average sea level by one metre, when superimposed on storm surges, could easily submerge low-lying islands.
The costs of responding to climate change depend on the options considered. They include (i) prevention: striving to prevent climate change; (ii) adaptation: emphasising strategies and measures for reducing expected damages; and (iii) policies: indirectly inducing reduced emissions of greenhouse gases. Although accurate estimates of costs of protection against climate change have not been finalised in Pacific islands, IPCC estimates that adaptations to climate change could cost billions of dollars. Pacific islanders are not impressed with these estimates, pointing out that for many islands, their entire culture and perhaps their lives are at risk.Responding to climate change
The small island developing states of the world banded together into an Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) during the 1990 Second World Climate Conference in Geneva. This united front played a central role in shaping international policy on climate change and is a classic example of cooperation for environmental reform. With considerable justification, AOSIS claims that metropolitan countries will need to pay damages to their countries and must begin meaningful reductions of greenhouse gasses without further delay. Tuvalu points out that the damages might be very expensive, as their islands may well become uninhabitable because of sea level rise.
Since 1980, considerable effort has been made to: (i) raise awareness of climate change; (ii) monitor research developments; (iii) develop methodologies for vulnerability assessment; (iv) monitor sea level rise; and (iv) strengthen national capacity to understand the science, impacts and responses to climate change and sea level rise. These efforts have involved environment officials, planners, meteorologists and the general public. Most Pacific island countries have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The Pacific Islands Climate Change Assistance Programme (PICCAP) is a three-year SPREP activity funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). PICCAP began in 1997 to assist 10 Pacific Island countries that signed and ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with their reporting, training, capacity building under the convention. Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu have appointed Climate Change Country Teams and a Climate Change Country Co-ordinator to: (i) inventory sources and sinks of greenhouse gases; (ii) identify and evaluate mitigation options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; (iii) assess vulnerability to climate change; (iv) develop adaptation options; (v) develop a national implementation strategy for mitigating and adapting to climate change over the long term.
Niue and PNG also have climate change programmes, but these are funded directly by GEF through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and UNDP and are not included in PICCAP.
.A total of 23 participants from Cook Islands, FSM, Fiji, Kiribati, RMI, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Niue attended a SPREP Regional Training Workshop on National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Methodology in 1998 for training in national inventories of greenhouse gas sources and sinks.
Participants from 12 countries including Niue and PNG participated in training on assessing climate change vulnerability and adaptation requirements during a six-month training course on climate change vulnerability and adaptation assessment at the International Global Change Institute (IGCI), University of Waikato, New Zealand in 1998.
The South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project, funded by AusAID and managed by the National Tidal Facility (NTF), based at the Flinders University of South Australia set up high resolution monitoring stations in eleven island countries to measure the relative motions of land and sea at each station. These data will assist in long term calibration of satellite altimetry and radio astronomy and provide a measure of regional vertical control, and exchange information and data with national, regional and international Climate Change centres. This will help the understanding of the complex problem of measuring changes in sea levels. The project also assists with information exchange and holds two week training courses on use of oceanographic, atmospheric and climate data in social and economic decision making.
The Japanese Government provided funds to develop an integrated coastal zone management programme in Fiji, Marshall Islands, Samoa and Tuvalu to assess the impacts of sea-level rise and develop vulnerability assessment methodologies.
Japan, Australia, and the United States of America have conducted tests of the IPCC Common Methodology for Sea-level rise impacts in Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu. Further studies are in progress in the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu with assistance from the GEF. In addition, the UNDP, Australia and Japan contributed to a SPREP program to assist Fiji, Marshall Islands, Samoa and Tuvalu with planning for policy responses to climate change in the economic and environmental sectors, such as impacts on water supply, coastal protection, energy and coastal management planning.
The IPCC Second Assessment Reports and many subsequent findings have vindicated the serious concern about potential impacts on fragile small island environments. It was, therefore, not surprising that SPREP's member countries, as part of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) made strong recommendations to the Kyoto discussions, calling for major cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases. The members of AOSIS played a highly visible role at the Third Conference of the Parties to UNFCCC meeting in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 and again at the Fourth Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 1998.
Representatives of 38 small island developing countries gathered in Majuro, in the Marshall Islands, from July 12-16 1999, to discuss potential benefits and problems of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. The meeting was organized by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and included representatives from 13 Pacific Island countries. The CDM would see developed countries investing in projects in developing countries, thus gaining credits for reductions in carbon dioxide that resulted from those projects. A share of the "proceeds" would be used to help countries most vulnerable to climate change to adapt to its adverse effects. Small island countries, which already established how vulnerable they are to climate change, hope to seek much-needed financial assistance from the CDM, to help with their adaptation measures, and to help them build up the new skills they need in future. Australia has organized a second CDM meeting in Nadi, Fiji focusing more on investment aspects. This meeting will study what advantages there could be for businesses in using CDM to invest in various sectors in Pacific island countries.
EXTRACT FROM 1998 COMMUNIQUÉ. 1999 Forum Communiqué Thirtieth South Pacific Forum Koror, Republic of Palau 3 - 5 October 1999 http://chacmool.sdnp.undp.org/pacific/forumsec/docs/fc99.htm
1. The Forum recognised and endorsed members’ deep concerns regarding the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on rising sea levels and changing weather patterns on all Forum members, especially low lying island nations, as recorded in the "Forum Leaders’ Statement on Climate Change" issued at the 28th South Pacific Forum and the "Statement on Climate Change and Sea Level rise" issued by the 7th Economic Summit of Smaller Island States Leaders.
2. The Forum recognised the legally binding commitments agreed in the Kyoto protocol as a significant first step forward on the path of ensuring effective global action to combat climate change.
3. The Forum encouraged all countries to sign the Kyoto Protocol and to work toward its earliest possible ratification.
4. The Forum urged that the momentum achieved in Kyoto be maintained and built upon at the Fourth Conference of the Parties (COP4) to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Buenos Aires in November 1998.
5. The Forum highlighted the importance of implementation of measures to ensure early progress toward meeting these commitments. They urged all Annex 1 Parties, especially the United States, European Union, Russia, Japan, Canada and other major emitters to take urgent action in this regard.
6. The Forum called for the achievement of substantial progress in establishment of the rules for international implementation mechanisms, particularly emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation to ensure that these mechanisms assist the effectiveness of greenhouse gas reduction efforts in the attainment of Kyoto commitments.
7. The Forum noted the recognition in the Kyoto Protocol of the importance of the adaptation needs of vulnerable Pacific Island states. Leaders urged all parties to recognise the need for adaptation measures to be undertaken within Pacific Island States. They called for adequate resources to be generated through the implementation mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol and the Global Environment Facility for the full range of adaptation measures.
8. The Forum recognised the importance of COP4 initiating work to develop verifiable, enforceable, effective and transparent accountability mechanisms through emissions inventory monitoring, recording and reporting requirements, and supported the need for an effective compliance regime to back the legally binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. They called for work to commence at COP4 on the elaboration of procedures and mechanisms for non-compliance with the Protocol.
9. The Forum stressed that an effective global response to the problem of climate change required ongoing active cooperation and strengthened action by all countries, in accordance with the principles of the UNFCCC, including of their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and that developed country parties should take the lead in combatting climate change and the adverse effects thereof. The Forum commended recent work done by SPREP in support of PIC’s in their international negotiations and recommended that this continue. The Forum stressed the urgent need to initiate a process to develop procedures and future time frames for wider global participation in emission limitation and reduction efforts in which significant developing country emitters would enter into commitments which reflect their individual national circumstances and development needs.
10. The Forum recommended that these positions should be actively advocated by Forum member countries and the Forum Chair, who would work together to advocate these positions to other countries and any broad grouping that members can influence in the lead up to, and at, COP4 in Buenos Aires and beyond.
Further comments by the Forum on Climate Change and Sea Level Rise
21. The Forum reaffirmed its position on Climate Change set out in its 1998 Communiqué (Annex 3). Leaders called on all States to implement the Buenos Aires Plan of Action in order to bring the Kyoto Protocol into force at the earliest possible date. Leaders also called upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to further strengthen support for the full range of measures for adaptation in Small Island Developing States (SIDS), in particular, through capacity building and transfer of technology.
22. Leaders also called for strengthened efforts to build capacity in Forum Island countries to understand and respond to climate change including strengthening the observational network for climate in the region.
23. The Forum resolved that members should, with support from the Forum Secretariat, SPREP and other regional organizations, continue their efforts to advance the UNFCCC negotiations, and in particular, that the Chair and the Secretary General, and members, take appropriate opportunities to advocate these positions, individually and collectively in the course of the UNFCCC COP5 and other later and related UNFCCC meetings.
An important adaptation strategy that may be useful to deal with these impacts at national level would be integrated coastal management (ICM). Integrated coastal management is a continuous, iterative, adaptive, and consensus-building process comprised of a set of related tasks, all of which must be carried out to achieve a set of goals, including adapting to the effects of climate change. The dimensions of integrated coastal management include:
Most Pacific island governments view climate change and sea-level rise and natural variability as priority issues, recognising that they significantly impact the economic, environment, social, cultural and traditional sectors of PICs. However, governments wish to know what they have to do to address the problem. Traditional cultural practices were inextricably interwoven with conservation of the environment. Traditional knowledge has governed activities and survival of people in the region both in the past and present. From a socio-economic perspective there has been a recent change from subsistence to a dual economy. Issues that need to be addressed include population concentration; the location of infrastructure; food security; culture; and a wide range of other activities that are integral to sustainable livelihoods in Pacific island countries.
The way ahead
Even if action is taken immediately by the industrial nations, the impacts of atmospheric pollution are going to get worse before they improve. Many scientists already feel it is too late to save the coral reefs of the world, and the economic and biological impacts of that and other unforeseen changes can hardly be guessed at.
The options for the Pacific islands, other than continuing to berate the industrial nations on their lack of concerted action, include migration, foreshore stablilisation, resettlement and decentralisation to adapt to the impacts of climate and sea-level changes.
All these options need planning as they have policy implications. Thus future directions will have to be researched so that some response strategies can be planned and recommended for future adaptation. An integrated coastal management (ICM) approach may be useful in the development and implementation of adaptation strategies and could be valuable, with or without climate change, to permit effective planning to achieve sustainable development at the national level.