Don’t give up on Pacific Island nations yet


Jon Barnett, University of Melbourne

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.


Read more: Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific Islanders


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.

Those sentiments were echoed by the late Tony de Brum, former foreign minister of the Marshall Islands and described as the “voice of the Pacific Islands on climate change”, who said in 2015:

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.


Read more: Islands lost to the waves: how rising seas washed away part of Micronesia’s 19th-century history


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.

The ConversationAnd 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.

Jon Barnett, Professor, School of Geography, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Islands lost to the waves: how rising seas washed away part of Micronesia’s 19th-century history



File 20170824 6594 1ussrse.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Laiap, to the west of the site of the now-disappeared Nahlapenlohd.
Author provided

Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast

At first glance it may not seem so, but the story of the now-vanished island of Nahlapenlohd, a couple of kilometres south of Pohnpei Island in Micronesia, holds some valuable lessons about recent climate change in the western Pacific.

In 1850, Nahlapenlohd was so large that not only did it support a sizeable coconut forest, but it was able to accommodate a memorable battle between the rival kingdoms of Kitti and Madolenihmw. The skirmish was the first in Pohnpeian history to involve the European sailor-mercenaries known as beachcombers and to be fought with imported weapons like cannons and muskets.

Today the island is no more. The oral histories tell that so much blood was spilled in this fierce battle that it stripped the island of all its vegetation, causing it to shrink and eventually disappear beneath the waves.


Read more: Sea level rise has claimed five whole islands in the Pacific: first scientific evidence


Like many oral tales, this one tries to explain island disappearance post-1850 by making reference to an historical event. But in light of what we know today, the more plausible cause of the island’s disappearance is the sea-level rise in the western Pacific since the early 19th century, which has accelerated significantly over the past few decades. The disappearance of islands in the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific has recently been attributed to sea level rise. Further north, the same is true of several reef islands off Pohnpei.

Pohnpei and its surrounding islands, both past and present.
CREDIT, Author provided

Surveys of 12 of these islands have shown that not only have some – like Nahlapenlohd – completely disappeared, but that most others have shrunk over the past decade. Islands such as Laiap and Ros, which have lost two-thirds of their land area over this time, are likely to disappear completely within the coming decade.

The island of Laiap has shrunk since 2007.
CREDIT, Author provided

Why are islands in the western Pacific becoming the earliest casualties of sea-level rise? Partly because sea levels in this region have risen at two to three times the global average over the past few decades.

In parts of Micronesia, sea level has risen by 10-12mm each year between 1993 and 2012, far outpacing the global average of 3.1mm a year. While this rate is unlikely to be sustained indefinitely, the current trend would raise sea levels by a further 30-40cm by mid-century if it were to continue.

What’s more, reef islands are particularly vulnerable to erosion by rising seas, being made almost entirely of sand and gravel. Whole islands – even some island nations with which we are familiar today – are likely to be rendered uninhabitable or even disappear within the next 30 years. These include islands in nations like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu, as well as some in other island nations that comprise mostly larger islands, such as the Federated States of Micronesia, of which Pohnpei is one.

Armoured islands

Yet we should note that not all of Pohnpei’s reef islands are disappearing, at least not at the same rate, and some have fortuitously evolved protection that will likely help them outlive their neighbours.

The coasts of some islands – like Kehpara and Nahlap – are “armoured” by beaches of huge boulders left there by large storms, often along their most exposed coasts. Other reef islands off Pohnpei’s leeward coast, such as Dawahk, are becoming “skeletonized” as waves wash across the island removing the sand and leaving only rocks, held in place by a maze of giant mangrove roots.

Whether or not the islands themselves succumb or survive, sea-level rise is a clear threat to their habitability for humans. Short-term interventions – either natural fortifications such as boulder beaches, or human-built defences such as seawalls – are unlikely to change the long-term outcome.

This underscores the fact that low-lying reef islands are transient – most Pacific reef islands formed only in the past 4,000 years after sea levels fell and sediment began to pile up on exposed reef platforms. The sea will remove today’s islands, just as it has washed away countless others before.

But of course we cannot ignore the human dimension. While only a few dozen people today call the reef islands of Pohnpei home, they are similar to many larger reef islands in Micronesia from which people may well be involuntarily displaced during the next few decades. Where these people might go, and how they can be accommodated in ways that preserve their dignity as well as their unique cultures, are very real questions for community leaders.


Read more: Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific islanders


People first reached the islands of Micronesia from the Philippines, about 3,500 years ago after an unbroken ocean crossing of 2,300km. It’s an extraordinary achievement when you consider that people in most other parts of the world at that time rarely sailed out of sight of land. To have survived on islands in the middle of the ocean for more than three millennia, Micronesians and other Pacific islanders must have developed considerable resilience.

On high islands in Micronesia, the evidence for this is manifest. Ancient stonework constructions line many parts of the coastline, testament to a long
history of resisting shoreline change, and sometimes of manipulating it for human advantage.

Perhaps nowhere is more evocative of this today than Nan Madol, a megalithic complex built 1,000 years ago on 93 artificial islands off southeast Pohnpei. There are many explanations about why Nan Madol was created. Perhaps the truth is that it is an expression of dogged human resilience – one of hundreds along Micronesian coasts – in the face of an unruly nature.


The ConversationI thank my co-researchers on the project focused on Pohnpei’s reef islands, Augustine Kohler from the Department of National Archives, Culture and Historic Preservation of the Government of the Federated States of Micronesia, and my colleague Roselyn Kumar from the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Sustainability Research Centre.

Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific Islanders



File 20170803 29001 1ltsosp
Environmental threats in the Pacific Islands can be cultural as well as physical.
Christopher Johnson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Steven Cork, Australian National University and Kate Auty, University of Melbourne

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.

There Once Was an Island.

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.

Australia’s role

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.


The ConversationThis article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Steven Cork, Adjunct Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kate Auty, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Feral animals are running amok on Australia’s islands – here’s how to stop them


Chris Wilcox, CSIRO and Erin McCreless, University of California, Santa Cruz

Australia has some 8,300 islands, many of them home to threatened species. But humans have introduced rodents and predators such as feral cats and foxes to many of these islands, devastating native wildlife and changing entire island ecosystems. Removing invasive mammals has proven to be a very effective tool for protecting island species.

As a result, the federal government has made it a priority to remove invasive vertebrates from islands where they pose the most severe threats to native plants and animals.

But choosing where to remove those invasives is difficult. We don’t have complete information about the distribution of native species and threats across the nation’s 8,300 islands, and we haven’t been able to predict where eradication will have the most benefit.

However, in a recent study published in Nature Communications, our global team of scientists looked at islands around the world to consider where we can get the biggest bang for our buck.

Eradicating cats, rats and pigs from Flinders Island in Tasmania would help save forty-spotted pardalotes.
Francesco Veronesi, CC BY-SA

It costs money to save species

The total cost of the recently completed rat and rabbit eradication on Macquarie Island was A$27 million. The proposed removal of rats from Lord Howe Island off New South Wales is expected to cost A$9 million.

Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has just announced funding to remove feral cats from five islands: Christmas Island, Dirk Hartog Island and the French Islands in Western Australia; and Bruny and King Islands in Tasmania.

Conservation dollars are limited, so it is important that these pricey interventions be focused on the islands where they will go the furthest toward conserving native island biodiversity.

Conversely, it is essential that we identify places where they won’t provide much benefit, either because a threatened species is likely to go extinct regardless of such interventions, or because the invasive species actually poses little threat.

It cost A$24 million to eradicate rats and rabbits from Macquarie Island.
Macquarie Island image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Island life

We analysed the effects of invasive mammals on 1,200 globally threatened species across more than 1,000 islands to develop a model for where eradicating invasive wildlife will provide the greatest benefits to island species.

We estimate nearly half of threatened species populations on islands could disappear without conservation efforts. But targeted eradication could prevent 40-75% of these losses.

We found that just a few types of invasive mammals – rats, cats, pigs, mongooses and weasels – are most strongly associated with the disappearance of native species from islands.

Importantly, our study shows that the impacts of invasive mammals vary widely across the type of native species (native amphibians, birds, reptiles or mammals) and the conditions of the islands on which they live.

For example, we found that removing invasive mammals from small, dry islands could halve the extirpation risk for threatened native birds and mammals, but doing so on large, wet islands would have less benefit.

Australia’s most important islands

Our study included thirty-three Australian islands, home to 17 species of globally threatened birds, mammals and amphibians including the woylie (or brush-tailed bettong), Tasmania devils, black-browed albatross and Cooloola sedgefrog.

Eighteen of these islands are also home to introduced rats, cats or pigs, which potentially threaten native species with extinction.

Traditionally, we might assume that eradicating cats and rats would always reduce bird extinctions. However, our study suggests otherwise.

Eradicating cats and rats could help northern quolls on some islands.
Quoll image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Rat or cat eradication may have little benefit on some islands. This is either because these invasive species have relatively minor impacts in some island environments, or because the native population is likely to go extinct regardless of conservation interventions.

So our study shows that of these 18 islands, eradicating invasive species on only two would likely prevent extinction of three native species populations. These are the eradication of cats and rats on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory, which would avert the extirpation (that is, the island-level extinction) of the northern quoll and northern hopping mouse; and the eradication of cats, rats and pigs on Flinders Island in Tasmania, which would avert the extirpation of the forty-spotted pardalote.

While this sounds like a tiny number, remember we haven’t looked at all of Australia’s islands and the species that live on them. Indeed, we only included species considered threatened at a global level. For the other islands not included in our study, species threatened with extinction at regional or national scales may – or may not – benefit from eradicating invasive species. As more information comes in on these islands, our analysis can suggest which of these we should focus on.

The Conversation

Chris Wilcox, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO and Erin McCreless, Research scientist, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sea-level rise has claimed five whole islands in the Pacific: first scientific evidence


Simon Albert, The University of Queensland; Alistair Grinham, The University of Queensland; Badin Gibbes, The University of Queensland; Javier Leon, University of the Sunshine Coast, and John Church, CSIRO

Sea-level rise, erosion and coastal flooding are some of the greatest challenges facing humanity from climate change.

Recently at least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, and a further six islands have been severely eroded.

These islands lost to the sea range in size from one to five hectares. They supported dense tropical vegetation that was at least 300 years old. Nuatambu Island, home to 25 families, has lost more than half of its habitable area, with 11 houses washed into the sea since 2011.

This is the first scientific evidence, published in Environmental Research Letters, that confirms the numerous anecdotal accounts from across the Pacific of the dramatic impacts of climate change on coastlines and people.

All that remains of one of the completely eroded islands.
Simon Albert, Author provided

A warning for the world

Previous studies examining the risk of coastal inundation in the Pacific region have found that islands can actually keep pace with sea-level rise and sometimes even expand.

However, these studies have been conducted in areas of the Pacific with rates of sea level rise of 3-5 mm per year – broadly in line with the global average of 3 mm per year.

For the past 20 years, the Solomon Islands have been a hotspot for sea-level rise. Here the sea has risen at almost three times the global average, around 7-10 mm per year since 1993. This higher local rate is partly the result of natural climate variability.

These higher rates are in line with what we can expect across much of the Pacific in the second half of this century as a result of human-induced sea-level rise. Many areas will experience long-term rates of sea-level rise similar to that already experienced in Solomon Islands in all but the very lowest-emission scenarios.

Natural variations and geological movements will be superimposed on these higher rates of global average sea level rise, resulting in periods when local rates of rise will be substantially larger than that recently observed in Solomon Islands. We can therefore see the current conditions in Solomon Islands as an insight into the future impacts of accelerated sea-level rise.

We studied the coastlines of 33 reef islands using aerial and satellite imagery from 1947-2015. This information was integrated with local traditional knowledge, radiocarbon dating of trees, sea-level records, and wave models.

Waves add to damage

Wave energy appears to play an important role in the dramatic coastal erosion observed in Solomon Islands. Islands exposed to higher wave energy in addition to sea-level rise experienced greatly accelerated loss compared with more sheltered islands.

Twelve islands we studied in a low wave energy area of Solomon Islands experienced little noticeable change in shorelines despite being exposed to similar sea-level rise. However, of the 21 islands exposed to higher wave energy, five completely disappeared and a further six islands eroded substantially.

The human story

These rapid changes to shorelines observed in Solomon Islands have led to the relocation of several coastal communities that have inhabited these areas for generations. These are not planned relocations led by governments or supported by international climate funds, but are ad hoc relocations using their own limited resources.

Many homes are close to sea level on the Solomons.
Simon Albert, Author provided

The customary land tenure (native title) system in Solomon Islands has provided a safety net for these displaced communities. In fact, in some cases entire communities have left coastal villages that were established in the early 1900s by missionaries, and retraced their ancestral movements to resettle old inland village sites used by their forefathers.

In other cases, relocations have been more ad hoc, with indivdual families resettling small inland hamlets over which they have customary ownership.

In these cases, communities of 100-200 people have fragmented into handfuls of tiny family hamlets. Sirilo Sutaroti, the 94-year-old chief of the Paurata tribe, recently abandoned his village. “The sea has started to come inland, it forced us to move up to the hilltop and rebuild our village there away from the sea,” he told us.

In addition to these village relocations, Taro, the capital of Choiseul Province, is set to become the first provincial capital in the world to relocate residents and services in response to the impact of sea-level rise.

The global effort

Interactions between sea-level rise, waves, and the large range of responses observed in Solomon Islands – from total island loss to relative stability – shows the importance of integrating local assessments with traditional knowledge when planning for sea-level rise and climate change.

Linking this rich knowledge and inherent resilience in the people with technical assessments and climate funding is critical to guiding adaptation efforts.

Melchior Mataki who chairs the Solomon Islands’ National Disaster Council, said: “This ultimately calls for support from development partners and international financial mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund. This support should include nationally driven scientific studies to inform adaptation planning to address the impacts of climate change in Solomon Islands.”

Last month, the Solomon Islands government joined 11 other small Pacific Island nations in signing the Paris climate agreement in New York. There is a sense of optimism among these nations that this signifies a turning point in global efforts.

However, it remains to be seen how the hundreds of billions of dollars promised through global funding models such as the Green Climate Fund can support those most at need in remote communities, like those in Solomon Islands.

Simon, Alistair and Javier will be on hand for an Author Q&A 2-3pm Monday May 9 2016. Leave your comments below.

The Conversation

Simon Albert, Senior Research Fellow, School of Civil Engineering, The University of Queensland; Alistair Grinham, Senior research fellow, The University of Queensland; Badin Gibbes, Senior Lecturer, School of Civil Engineering, The University of Queensland; Javier Leon, Lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast, and John Church, CSIRO Fellow, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rising Sea Level Threat


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the threat of rising sea levels to islands caused by global warming and climate change.

For more visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0408-edwards-sealevels-extinction.html