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Climate Change in the Pacific

An introduction to the impact of Climate Change in the Pacific.
© Te Papa. All rights Reserved

A view over a shallow reefy seabed towards a low-lying tropical island. There is a small hut and a jetty within the palm trees. ‘Atata Island, Tonga. Haanofonua, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Atmospheric carbon levels are now over 420ppm and rising – higher than it’s been in 3 million years, when the Earth’s surface temperature was 2.5-4 degrees warmer, and sea levels up to 25m higher. Higher than at any point in human history. The relative stability of atmospheric carbon over the last 10,000 years at around 280ppm has sharply and steadily risen by 50% in the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, and continues to rise today, trapping further heat in the atmosphere.

A technical chart showing the unprecedented rise in atmospheric carbon levels in the last 200 years compared to the last 800,000 years - as described in the article text.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce

Climate change is a global issue, but in few places is it being felt so tangibly, and so drastically as in the Pacific, where entire islands, the roots of unique cultures, are at risk of being swallowed whole, lost forever.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Migration with dignity

Kiribati is the most stark example of this. This low-lying republic of atolls averages less than two metres above sea level, and the rising ocean is already devouring it. Some islands are already lost, and others are facing crop and health risks from salination of the freshwater reserves. If the worlds emissions continue as they stand now, it is likely to be entirely underwater within just 80 years. Even if all worldwide climate agreements are met, it will likely still be uninhabitable by then.

Kiribati’s leaders over the past decade have oscillated between planning for a managed ‘Migration with Dignity’ to Pacific neighbours Fiji, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, a resigned belief that whatever is to come is God’s will, and a more recent plea at the COP27 Climate conference that wealthy nations fund an ambitious dredging and land-building reclamation project to keep the island above the waves.

It is a stark reminder of a worldwide phenomenon; that it will be those who contributed to it the least who face the harshest consequences of climate change, and who will be the least resourced to deal with the rapid changes. Their homes, their ways of lives, their communities, and their cultures are at real risk. I-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati) are the world’s first wave of climate refugees.

Former president Anote Tong co-authored a 2021 article outlining the reality facing I-Kiribati;

”We gave our I-Kiribati workers international qualifications tailored for jobs in demand overseas. After this, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand set up a scheme to allow workers to migrate to New Zealand if they had an offer of a job. Each year prior to COVID, 75 people from Kiribati were able to migrate through the scheme.
New Zealand is the first and only country currently offering a permanent labour migration program from Kiribati. While welcome, we will need more places for I-Kiribati as climate change intensifies.
Like New Zealand, Australia has expanded its seasonal worker schemes for Pacific workers, and is now moving towards a longer stay, multi-visa arrangement under its Pacific Labour Scheme. We expect this scheme will evolve into a permanent migration scheme similar to New Zealand.
While we wait in hope for a true safe haven for our people, our diaspora is growing. I-Kiribati are moving now to Pacific countries higher above the water level such as Fiji, the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tonga.
Are we scared? Of course. We are on the front line of this crisis, despite having done amongst the least to cause it. It is difficult to leave the only home we have known. But science does not lie. And we can see the water coming.”
An aerial view of a roughly triangular shaped atoll. The left edge is reef opening up to the ocean, while the bottom and angled right hand edges are made up of thin strips of land, sand and greenery. The centre of the atoll is filled with shallower water and feef. Kiribati’s Tarawa Atoll is home to more than half of the island nation’s far-flung population. European Space Agency, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Sinking Aotearoa New Zealand

But Aotearoa New Zealand is not such a safe haven either and also faces massive climate upheaval. Because the country is slowly sinking due to geological forces, the effect of rising sea levels is exacerbated, progressing twice as fast as was originally predicted. Many New Zealanders live near the coast, or in its two most populous, and most low-lying cities, Auckland | Tamāki Makaurau and Wellington | Te Whanganui-a-Tara.

Climate justice

It is against this regional backdrop that we move into a look at climate change protest in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is no surprise that Pacific stories are at the centre of this activism and that the focus is on climate justice – an outcry not just against global inaction, but in the ways in which its inputs and consequences intersect with indigenous issues. The Pacific is a microcosm of a global story. Even though they are the lowest carbon emitters, it is those nations who are already disadvantaged from the intergenerational effects of colonisation and poverty who will face the brunt of a changing climate, while those who benefit from industrialization drag their heels on change.
”The Pacific is feeling the effects of climate change faster, more clearly, and more drastically. As the collection of Nations that contributes some less than 1% of the global carbon emissions, we are facing the consequences of climate change in full… Climate justice is indigenous liberation. Climate justice is patriarchal liberation. Climate justice is OUR liberation. And we refuse to be silent as our way of life is being threatened.”
Kevin Aipopo, Matagi Mālohi : Strong Winds

Further Resources

Inside Kiribati: The Island Being Erased By Climate Change documentary from Al Jazeera (14 mins)

Short film (7mins), Suspended Generation – The Kids of Kiribati

Trailer for the documentary film, There once was an island about Takuu, a small Papua New Guinean atoll with a unique culture. As the tides rise, the village leaders must decide whether to stay and fight the waves, or flee their ancestral home forever.

A trip to remote Tokelau: Life a few metres above sea level

Co-collecting climate change in Tokelau: Project IKA, Te Papa

© Te Papa. All rights Reserved
This article is from the free online

The History of Protest in Aotearoa New Zealand

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