Environment Minister Melissa Price has been trending on Twitter this week – and not for any good environmental reasons.
Price was introduced to the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, during a dinner at a Canberra restaurant hosted by Labor Senator Pat Dodson. Tong has brought global attention to his country because of the existential challenges it faces from climate change and rising sea levels.
Peter Dutton’s foray into comedy in 2015 springs to mind. In response to a quip by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott about how islanders are not good at being on time, Dutton said:
Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.
Water lapping at the door apparently doesn’t translate into concern over climate change and global warming – a matter of urgency for the low-lying island nations in the Pacific.
Rather than share the concerns of Pacific leaders on this issue, some Australian politicians have chosen to trivialise them and accuse Pacific nations of only being interested in a cash grab.
Just last month, Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald also accused Pacific nations of swindling money from Australia to address the effects of rising sea levels. The Sydney Morning Herald reported him saying:
They might be Pacific islanders, but there’s no doubting their wisdom and their ability to extract a dollar where they see it.
If Macdonald had been listening to the Canberra speech last month by Dame Meg Taylor, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, he would have heard a very different message:
It is absolutely essential that we work together to move the discussion with Australia to develop a pathway that will minimise the impacts of climate change for the future of all … including Australia.
So far this call has fallen on deaf ears.
Australia’s history of phosphate extraction
Australians know well how polite and friendly Pacific people are. Flights to Fiji during school holidays are packed with families seeking sun, sand and true island hospitality. But both the shallow view of the Pacific as a paradise, and political slurs of cash-hungry islanders, reveal a deep Australian ignorance of Pacific histories, environments, peoples and cultural values, and of Australia’s projects of colonial extraction in the region.
For over a century, Australia has had an intense social and cultural relationship with Oceania, paralleling its economic and geo-strategic interests, and not just with Papua New Guinea or Melanesian states.
From the start of the 20th century, Australian mining companies began extracting phosphate as fast as they could from Nauru and Banaba island (in what is now Kiribati) in order to grow the country’s agricultural industry.
And grow it did, exponentially, while consuming the landscapes of much smaller Pacific islands. Pacific phosphate – and the superphosphate fertiliser it produced – was the magic dust of Australian agriculture. Little could have been grown here without it, as Australia has always been “a continent of soils with a low plant nutrient supply”.
But decades of phosphate mining on Banaba stripped away about 90% of the island’s surface. By the late 1970s, when the mining operations ended, 22 million tons of land had been removed. The island wasn’t rehabilitated and all the mining infrastructure was left to rust and decay.
Many Banabans were relocated to Rabi Island in Fiji over the years, including my grandfather. It was a migration that foreshadows future relocations that many Pacific islanders face due to climate change.
It’s hypocritical for Australian leaders to accuse the Pacific of being solely after money, when Australia exploited Banaba and other Pacific islands in this way. At a time, when the future of many Pacific nations is under threat, a little compassion, responsibility and real action on climate change is in order, not jokes or barbs at islanders’ expense.
When the Pacific Islands Forum is held in Nauru from September 1, one of the main objectives will be signing a wide-ranging security agreement that covers everything from defence and law and order concerns to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The key question heading into the forum is: can the agreement find a balance between the security priorities of Australia and New Zealand and the needs of the Pacific Island nations?
Even though new Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not attending the forum, sending Foreign Minister Marise Payne instead, the Biketawa Plus security agreement remains a key aim for Canberra.
The original Biketawa Declaration was developed as a response to the 2000 coup in Fiji. It has served Australia and the region well, providing a framework for collective action when political tensions and crises occur. However, in the face of rapid change, it looks narrow and dated.
Why act now? The rationale is clear. Much has happened to alter the security landscape in the Pacific since 2000. But despite the commentary in Australia, security in the Pacific is not all about geopolitics. While Australia may be most worried about China’s rising influence in the region, it would be a mistake to think this is the primary preoccupation of Pacific leaders, too.
A focus on climate change as a security issue
One key reason for updating Biketawa is to realign Australia’s security interests with those of Pacific Island countries that have grown more aware of their shared interests and confident in expressing them in international relations. This growing confidence is clear in the lobbying of Pacific nations for climate change action at the United Nations and in Fiji’s role as president of the UN’s COP23 climate talks.
In the absence of direct military threats, the Pacific Island nations are most concerned about security of a different kind. Key issues for the region are sustainable growth along a “blue-green” model, climate change (especially the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters and rising sea levels), illegal fishing and over-fishing, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), transnational crime, money laundering and human trafficking.
Some of these security issues can be addressed by redirecting more Australian military forces to the region. Indeed, “disaster diplomacy” has been an effective method of connecting Australia’s security interests with those of Pacific Island nations in the past.
However, other priorities for the Pacific seem to run counter to Australia’s current policies toward the region. For example, the Pacific’s sustainable “blue-green” development agenda seems incompatible with an export-oriented growth model that is often touted by Australia as an “aid for trade” solution to Pacific “problems”.
Climate change adaptation and mitigation must also be elevated to the top of the agenda in Australia’s relations with the region. It is the most pressing problem in the Pacific, but for political and economic reasons, it hasn’t resonated to the same extent with Canberra.
In fact, Australia has recently been identified as the worst-performing country in the world on climate action. This has not gone unnoticed in the Pacific. Fiji’s prime minister, in particular, has been clear in highlighting that Australia’s “selfish” stance on climate change undermines its credibility in the region.
These shifting priorities in the Pacific present a greater challenge for Australia, especially now that there are more players in the region, such as China, Russia and Indonesia. Australia may see these “outsiders” as potential threats, but Pacific nations are just as likely to view them as alternative development partners able to provide opportunities.
New Coalition team on the Pacific
Making matters even trickier is the leadership shake-up in Canberra. What’s perhaps most problematic is Julie Bishop’s departure as foreign minister. Bishop did more to engage with Pacific countries than any foreign minister in recent memory. The [2017 Foreign Policy White Paper], for example, prioritised increased Pacific engagement and led to the region receiving the lion’s share of Australia’s latest aid budget.
Payne will attend the Pacific Islands Forum on her first overseas visit as foreign minister. As the former defence minister, she lobbied for Australia to be seen as a “security partner of choice” in the Pacific. What remains to be seen is whether she can maintain the momentum on Biketawa Plus.
So the challenge for the new Coalition leadership is to find a way to push through a new Pacific security agreement that caters to both Australia’s security concerns about Chinese influence in the region and the Pacific Island countries’ focus on climate change and sustainable growth.
There are lessons that can be drawn from the decade-long negotiations between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations over the Pacer Plus free-trade agreement, which was finally signed last year (without the region’s two largest economies, Papua New Guinea and Fiji). Australia must not underestimate the diplomatic skills of Pacific leaders or offer benefits that are perceived as being more attractive to it than the Pacific states.
Australia must also avoid allowing the leadership spill to impact its Pacific agenda at this sensitive time. Bishop’s focus on labour mobility between the Pacific islands and Australia has been most welcome, but there can be no authentic engagement with the region without addressing climate insecurity as well.
In Indonesia, more than 197 million people live within 100km of a volcano, including more than 8.6 million inside a 10km radius.
The country has a record of some of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in history, and right now there are ongoing eruptions at the Agung, Sinabung and Dukono volcanoes. But other volcanoes in the region are active too, including Kadovar in Papua New Guinea, Mayon in the Philippines, and Kusatsu-Shiranesan in Japan.
Although it all seems to be happening at once, it’s normal for the Asia-Pacific region to have frequent earthquake and volcanic activity.
But we still need to keep a close eye on things, and local volcanic authorities are monitoring activity to manage risks and evacuations adequately.
These volcanoes are part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, a horseshoe-shaped belt of earthquakes and volcanoes that runs for some 40,000km, roughly around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The Ring stretches from South America, up to North America and across the Bering straight, and down through Japan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Zealand. It generates around 90% of the world’s earthquakes and contains 75% of its active volcanoes.
Here are the volcanoes on my Asia-Pacific watch list this week.
Agung, Bali, Indonesia
Mount Agung in Bali has been highly scrutinised for the past few months, largely because of Bali’s popularity as a tourist destination.
After a series of volcanic earthquakes (more than 1,000 per day at its peak), eruptions began on November 21, 2017.
In the evening of January 19 an explosion of fire (known as a “strombolian” eruption) ejected glowing rocks up to 1km from the crater. The alert level remains at the highest level, with an exclusion zone in place.
There have been very few issues for tourists visiting Bali so far, apart from a temporary closure of Denpasar airport in late November 2017. However, thousands of Agung’s local residents are still displaced from their homes, with many still stationed in evacuation centres. It remains uncertain when those living closest will be able to return home.
Sinabung volcano awoke in 2010 after a 400-year sleep, and is currently one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia. It has been pretty much in constant eruption since September 2013, and there are still frequent volcanic earthquakes.
Eruptions have produced ash plumes reaching as high as 11km into the atmosphere, as well as ash fall and lava flows. There have also been volcanic mudflows (“lahars”) and fast-moving, hot flows of gas, ash and rock fragments (“pyroclastic flows”), which have killed 25 people.
The initial activity in 2010 saw around 30,000 people evacuated. In August last year the Indonesian National Disaster Management Authority (BNPB) reported that there were 7,214 people displaced, and a further 2,863 living in refugee camps. For the locals, life seemingly goes on in the midst of eruptions.
The alert level currently remains at 4 (on a scale of 1-4), with exclusion zones of 3-7km around the volcano.
Mayon, around 330km southeast of Manila, is a picture-perfect volcano with its steep-sided conical cone, typical of stratovolcanoes. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, with 24 confirmed eruptive periods in the past 100 years. Mayon’s most violent eruption in 1814 killed more than 1,200 people and destroyed several towns.
The recent eruption began on January 13, 2018, and is continuing, with several episodes of dramatic lava fountaining, one lasting 74 minutes.
Eruptions during January 23-29 generated 3-5km-high ash plumes and multiple pyroclastic flows, which travelled more than 5km down drainage channels. The alert is at level 4 (on a scale of 1 to 5) and an 8km danger zone is in place.
Lava flows have currently made their way up to 4.5km down river valleys from the summit crater.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) estimated on January 27 that the total volume of material deposited from ash fall and pyroclastic flows amounted to 10.5 million cubic metres. Remobilisation of this loose volcanic material by rainfall to form volcanic mudflows is a major concern.
According to news articles, more than 75,000 people have been evacuated, along with the temporary closure of Legazpi airport around 15km away.
Kadovar, Papua New Guinea
Until January 2018, when it began erupting, I hadn’t heard of Kadovar. It’s a 2km-wide, 365m-high emergent summit of a stratovolcano off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
The volcano had no confirmed historic eruptions before 2018. However, it is possible that William Dampier, a 17th-century pirate and later maritime adventurer, witnessed an eruption at Kadovar during a voyage in search of Terra Australis.
Activity began on January 5, 2018, with rising plumes of ash and steam from the volcano. The island’s inhabitants, some literally living on the crater rim, began evacuating at that time. People were initially taken by boat to neighbouring Blup Blup island but then to the mainland along with other nearby islanders, due to the close proximity of the eruption and logistics of providing people with supplies.
The Rabaul Volcano Observatory reported that activity significantly escalated on January 12, with a large explosive eruption and volcanic rocks ejected to the south. Large amounts of sulfur dioxide have been detected since January 8, and continue to be released along with ash and steam plumes. A lava “dome” has been observed glowing at night.
The impact from the eruption is not just confined to those on Kadovar and nearby islands, with satellite imagery tracking an ash plume from Kadovar travelling over tens of kilometres.
On January 23, 2018, an eruption occurred at Kusatsu-Shirane volcano without any prior warning, catching Japan’s Meteorological Agency and volcanic experts, not to mention the skiers on the volcano, by surprise.
The ejected volcanic rocks, which landed up to 1km away from the vent, injured several people. A member of the Ground Self-Defence Force who was skiing in a training exercise was killed.
The Japan Meteorological Agency has since analysed the deposits of the eruption and state that there was no new magma erupted on January 23.
Japan has more than 100 active volcanoes, with many monitored 24/7 by Japan’s Meteorological Agency.
Living near volcanoes
Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan have the greatest numbers of people living within 100km of their volcanoes. The populations of small volcanic island nations, such as Tonga and Samoa, almost all live within 100km.
Indonesia has the greatest total population located within 10km (more than 8.6 million), 30km (more than 68 million) and 100km (more than 179 million), and a record of some of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in history.
The eruption of Tambora in 1812-15, was the largest eruption in the last 10,000 years and killed around 100,000 Indonesians (due to the eruption and the ensuing famine). The infamous eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa) killed an estimated 35,000 people, almost all due to volcanic-generated tsunamis. Volcanic mudflows (lahars) generated by the eruptions of 1586 and 1919 at Kelut (Kelud) in Java took the lives of 10,000 and 5,000 people, respectively.
Keeping watch on the world’s volcanoes is a big job for the local volcanic agencies. This is particularly true when volcanoes erupt for the first time in history (Kadovar is a good example) or there were no warning signals before eruption, as at Kusatsu-Shirane.
Fiji’s presidency of this year’s United Nations climate summit has put a renewed focus on the future of low-lying Pacific Islands. And while we should not ignore the plight of these nations, it is just as damaging to assume that their fate is already sealed.
Many people in Australia consider island nations such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands to be almost synonymous with impending climate catastrophe. After returning from Papua New Guinea in 2015, federal immigration minister Peter Dutton infamously joked that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”.
If influential and everyday Australians, and the rest of the world, hold the view that Pacific Island nations are doomed to succumb to climate change, the danger is that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When we deny the possibility of a future for low-lying small islands, we are
admitting defeat. This in turn undermines the impetus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and find ways to help communities carry on living in their island homes. It leaves us unable to discuss any options besides palliative responses for climate refugees.
There are other consequences of this pessimistic framing of islands. It may
undermine efforts to sustainably manage environments, because a finite future is
anathema to the sustaining resources in perpetuity. It can also manifest itself in harmful local narratives of denial or self-blame. And it can lead to climate change being blamed for environmental impacts that arise from local practices, which then remain unchanged.
We would do well to listen instead to what the leaders of low-lying island nations are saying, such as Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, who told the 2013 Warsaw climate summit:
… some have suggested that the people of Tuvalu can move elsewhere. Let
me say in direct terms. We do not want to move. Such suggestions are
offensive to the people of Tuvalu. Our lives and culture are based on our
continued existence on the islands of Tuvalu. We will survive.
Displacement is not an option we relish or cherish and we will not operate on that basis. We will operate on the basis that we can in fact help to prevent this from happening.
Determined to survive
These leaders are determined for good reasons. Small islands are likely to respond in a host of different ways to climate change, depending on their geology, local wave patterns, regional differences in sea-level rise, and how their corals, mangroves and other wildlife respond to changing temperatures and weather patterns.
Evidence suggests that even seemingly very similar island types may respond very differently to one another. In many cases it is too early to say for sure that climate change will make a particular island uninhabitable.
But perhaps even more important in the future of low-lying small islands is the
way people adapt to climate change. There are all sorts of ways in which people can adapt their environments to changing conditions. Indeed, when the first migrants arrived in the low-lying atolls of Micronesia more than 3,000 years ago they found sand islands with no surface water and little soil, and settled them with only what they had in their small boats. Modern technologies and engineering systems can transform islands even more substantially, so that people can still live meaningful lives on them under changed climate conditions.
Adapting islands to climate change will not be easy. It will involve changes in where and how things are built, what people eat, how they get their water and energy, and what their islands look like.
It will also involve changes in institutions that are fundamental to island
societies, such as those concerned with land and marine tenure. But it can be done, with ingenuity, careful and long-term planning, technology transfer, and
meaningful partnerships between governments and international agencies.
Failure so far
Frustratingly, however, the international community is so far failing island states when it comes to this crucial adaptation. Despite their acute vulnerability having been recognised for at least 30 years, low-lying atoll countries such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu are attracting only low or moderate amounts of international adaptation funding. This is mostly as part of larger regional projects, and often focused on building capacity rather than implementing actual changes.
It is we who have failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to help low-lying islands adapt, and it is we who cannot imagine any long-term future for them. It seems all we can do is talk about loss, migration, and waves of climate refugees. Having let them down twice, this defeatist thinking risks denying them an independent future for a third time. This is environmental neo-colonialism.
The international community has a moral responsibility to deliver a
comprehensive strategy to minimise the risks climate change poses to remote
low-lying islands. People living on these islands have a legal and moral right to lead dignified lives in their homelands, free from the interference of climate impacts. People who live in affluent countries high above sea level have several responsibilities here.
First, as most of us agree, we should reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We have some control over that through how we consume, invest, vote and travel. Second, we should insist that our governments do more to help low-lying states to adapt to climate change. It is our pollution, after all. And we should argue for a reversal in our declining aid budgets.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should all stop talking down the future of low-lying small islands, because all this does is hasten their demise.
When a foreign species arrives in a new environment and spreads to cause some form of economic, health, or ecological harm, it’s called a biological invasion. Often stowing away among the cargo of ships and aircraft, such invaders cause billions of dollars of economic loss annually across the globe and have devastating impacts on the environment.
While the number of introductions which eventually lead to such invasions is rising across the globe, most accidental introduction events involve small numbers of individuals and species showing up in a new area.
But new research published today in Science has found that hundreds of marine species travelled from Japan to North America in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (which struck the east coast of Japan with devastating consequences).
Marine introductions result from biofouling, the process by which organisms start growing on virtually any submerged surface. Within days a slimy bacterial film develops. After months to a few years (depending on the water temperature) fully formed communities may be found, including algae, molluscs such as mussels, bryozoans, crustaceans, and other animals.
Current biosecurity measures, such as antifouling on ships and border surveillance, are designed to deal with a steady stream of potential invaders. But they are ill-equipped to deal with an introduction event of the scale recorded along most of the North American coast. This would be just as true for Australia, with its extensive coastlines, as it is for North America.
Mass marine migration
This research, led by James Carlton of Williams College, shows that over a few years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, many marine organisms arrived along the west coast of North America on debris derived from human activity. The debris ranged from small pieces of plastic to buoys, to floating docks and damaged marine vessels. All of these items harboured organisms. Across the full range of debris surveyed, scores of individuals from roughly 300 species of marine creatures arrived alive. Most of them were new to North America.
The tsunami swept coastal infrastructure and many human artefacts out to sea. Items that had already been in the water before the tsunami carried their marine communities along with them. The North Pacific Current then transported these living communities across the Pacific to Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and California.
What makes this process unusual is the way a natural extreme event – the earthquake and associated tsunami – gave rise to an extraordinarily large introduction event because of its impact on coastal infrastructure. The researchers argue that this event is of unprecedented magnitude, constituting what they call “tsunami-driven megarafting”: rafting being the process by which organisms may travel across oceans on debris – natural or otherwise.
It’s not known how many of these new species will establish themselves and spread in their new environment. But, given what we know about the invasion process, it’s certain at least some will. Often, establishment and initial population growth is hidden, especially in marine species. Only once it is either costly or impossible to do something about a new species, is it detected.
Perhaps one of the largest questions the study raises is whether this was a once off event. Might similar future occurrences be expected? Given the rapid rate of coastal infrastructure development, the answer is clear: this adds a new dimension to coastal biosecurity that will have to be considered.
Investment in coastal planning and early warning systems will help, as will reductions in plastic pollution. But such investment may be of little value if action is not taken to adhere to, and then exceed, nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement. Without doing so, a climate change-driven sea level rise of more than 1 m by the end of the century may be expected. This will add significantly to the risks posed by the interactions between natural extreme events and the continued development of coastal infrastructure. In other words, this research has uncovered what might be an increasingly common new ecological process in the Anthropocene – the era of human-driven global change.
What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.
Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.
Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.
Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.
At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.
One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.
The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.
Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.
As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.
What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.
Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.
The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.
At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).
This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.
Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
This article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.