Climate change in the developing Pacific islands

The calls from small developing island states in the Pacific to curb emissions and reduce climate change impact are slowly having an effect.

The reality though, post-2015 Paris Agreement, is some of these islands are headed for total annihilation.

The 2014 UN report has “locked in” a 1.3m sea level rise over the next  2000 years, even if we reduce emissions tomorrow. This was a conservative estimate and the low projections suggest that it may already be too late for some.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a 2m rise in seal level could displace close to 2 million people. This would wipe out atoll nations across the Pacific.

With global temperatures at record highs in the past 14 months, the future is hopeless. Extreme weather events such as more frequent and stronger cyclones, intense and prolonged droughts, ocean acidification, water table contamination by salt water and coastal erosion are threatening lives.

In February this year, the Fiji islands witnessed the strongest cyclone in the Southern hemisphere with an estimated $US1.4 billion worth of damages. Up to 40% of its population were affected in various ways and are still recovering from the wake of its destruction.

Tropical cyclone Zena wreaked havoc on Tonga and Fiji around April this year, killing three.

A similar disaster, severe tropical cyclone Pam in 2015, inundated and annihilated two of Tuvalu’s islands.

In his remarks to the UN HQ in New York, Tuvalu’s envoy Sunema Pie Simati said that the country has lost four islands since 2000.

The same cyclone Pam severely affected Vanuatu, where 90,000 people were targeted for food distributions, as reported by the UN OCHA.

Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati have recently faced similar disasters and the terrifying consequences have led to redefining the concept of security in the 21st century.

The 2015-2016 El Nino events affected 2.7 million people in Papua New Guinea where its government spent more than $US60 million in development funds. This was one of the worst to hit the Pacific, and the UN OCHA estimated around 4.3 million people in 12 Pacific countries to be affected.

The concern of the scattered island nations is an existential one. Being geographically isolated and scattered over the world’s largest ocean, they have a low ability to cope with the impacts.

According to the UN's science panel, a 1m sea level rise could exterminate 15% of the Pacific islands.

So why is it important to keep temperature within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial level?

For Pacific island countries, and more importantly the smaller atoll nations, the stakes are too high. To avoid the worst consequences of losing their land, heritage and country, it is crucial to not exceed this limit.

At the moment the felt changes in the intensity and frequency of tidal surges, storms, droughts, water table contamination, disease spread, bleached coral reefs, and coupled with tectonic disasters are already overwhelming.

We must respect their right to live and exist and to save their future.

As stated by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the small islands are a magnifying glass, exposing the vulnerabilities countries across the world may face in the future.

But what can these vulnerable developing nations do? Pacific island countries are engaging in planting trees as a weapon to combat climate change. They are moving towards a low-carbon energy future with transformation in their energy sectors. They are investing in changing policies and governance strategies to create conducive environments for research and development.

We need to act now because when we fail to act, we condemn our future and in the end, there will be no winner.  

Rokotamana Vitinaqailevu

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