Impacts, Issues and Dimensions of Climate Change: A Pacific Islander Viewpoint

By Siwatibau, Suliana | The Ecumenical Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview
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Impacts, Issues and Dimensions of Climate Change: A Pacific Islander Viewpoint


Siwatibau, Suliana, The Ecumenical Review


The Second Assessment Report (SAR) of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), produced in 1995, declared beyond doubt that climate change due to human activities has begun to occur on a global scale. This human-induced global climate change is the single most compelling evidence that the current collective way of life of humanity and the dominant economic development model are unsustainable. This is clear to most of the developing world, especially to those of us from the Pacific, who are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and can do little to correct the situation. The solution is not in our hands as we are not the major contributors to the problem. Fundamental questions have to be asked about humanity's whole way of life, the dominant model of development and the value systems which underlie development efforts.

Vulnerable nations

In the Pacific, the impact of climate change can already be felt. We are like the caged canary that miners carry to give them advance warning of lethal gases. In its SAR, the IPCC frequently reiterates the extra vulnerability of those who live on small islands and in low-lying coastal areas to sea-level rise, increasing high tides, greater wave damage and intrusion of salt water into underground water tables. As an adaptive measure, the report advises avoidance of settlement in low-lying coastal areas and on steep hillsides. For many of us this leaves little or no choice. Some of our nations are made up entirely of low-lying atolls, while many of our high islands are volcanic peaks rising straight out of the sea with narrow coastal plains if at all.

The IPCC report explains that while average temperatures may remain relatively unchanged, extreme weather patterns such as droughts and heavy rains with serious flooding will become more evident. The cost to the poor will be high, while -- for those who can afford insurance payments -- the insurance sector will be tightly stretched. Other important impacts of climate change include a shift in vegetation patterns due to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns. For those who live in small islands, this could mean complete loss of forests and other types of vegetation, as well as high rates of species extinction.

Although our land surfaces are small, the long isolation of our islands has resulted in the evolution of many endemic species, found nowhere else in the world, some restricted to very small and special locations on mountain tops or in narrow valleys or on a single small island. Our coral reefs are among the most diverse in the world, while our deep sea creatures are yet incompletely explored. Unfortunately, the Pacific region now has not only one of the highest rates of occurrence of endemic species in the world, but also one of the highest rates of species extinction in the world. The global community through international conventions reminds our landowners of their responsibilities to conserve these species for the world, but a recognition of the reciprocal obligation of the rest of the world to do its utmost to slow down the rate of global climate change to allow natural adaptations to take place seems not yet to exist. The IPCC also warns that the destruction of native plant and animal life may be aggravated by the appearance of more aggressive weeds and pests, which may become more widespread as an indirect impact of climate change.

The SAR also anticipates that increasing climate change may result in disruptive internal migration within countries and international migration for those whose whole nations are under threat of destruction. Several of our island nations which consist entirely of atolls may have to migrate en masse to other countries, with a high risk of complete cultural and social disruption. The report stresses that climate change impacts are still difficult to quantify with reasonable confidence, and calls for more monitoring and research, especially in vulnerable areas in the developing world.

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