The Limits of Climate Change for Small Island States

It is entirely unfortunate that the recent Pacific Islands Forum was held only days before Australia’s lackluster prime minister, Tony Abbott, was ousted from power. Not that the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, would necessarily have had a radically different impact on the outcome of the Forum, but one can hope that he would have at least listened to what Pacific islands were saying: the internationally ‘agreed’ two degree limit in the rise in global temperatures is far too much. In the Pacific, the maximum temperature increase, resulting in rising sea levels, would be 1.5 degrees, otherwise, the very existence of Pacific islands is at stake.

Sadly, though, neither the Government of Australia, nor New Zealand for that matter, felt the need to listen or act (See One must assume that the governments of these much larger countries had self-interest at heart, with views of sending extra money to the Pacific islands in the future for ‘adaptation’ activities to ease their concerns and silence their critics. This assumption is not too far a stretch from the global approach to climate change – more money (USD 100 billion worth, in fact) for adaptation and mitigation and we can assuage our carbon-soaked consciences.

But this entirely misses the point. For countries which have had little or no impact on the climate, such as Pacific island countries, there is little they can do to mitigate climate change. This leaves them with the single option of adaptation. This is all fine and well as the initial impacts of climate change have become apparent and the tools needed to adapt are available – for now. But as the global temperature keeps rising – and it will – Pacific islanders cannot anticipate what the effects will be, and thus cannot anticipate if the tools currently available will be adequate. Moreover, adaptation is not an infinite process. At some point there will be a winner, and a loser. Which is why the Pacific islands are lobbying so intensely for a limit to a 1.5 degree increase in global temperatures. That is the point at which they know they can manage adaptation – after that, climate change will push the islands to the very edge of their existence.

So, it begs the question as to why Australia and New Zealand would not view the Pacific islands position as also in their best interest. With a 2 degree rise in global temperatures, climate refugees from the Pacific will become the norm. And we already know just how receptive the Australian government is to refugees. Imagine when they become swamped (no pun intended) by Pacific islanders with literally no place to be returned to (or detained – Nauru and Manus Island are very much at risk from global warming as well).

This whole story just goes to show how outnumbered the Pacific islands really are. In a previous post here ( I discussed the perils to the Pacific islands due to the propensity of the international community to ‘regionalize’ development, and in particular the massive disadvantage to the Pacific islands due to its unfortunate grouping within the ‘Asia-Pacific’ region. Their voice is never heard. Their neighbours do not care enough about their challenges because their combined population is minuscule compared to others in the region. Even when faced with only two neighbours – Australia and New Zealand – their opinions and concerns are easily overridden.

Thus, we need to ask, who will champion the Pacific islands on the global stage? Theory in Practice ( has initiated an advocacy campaign ( to raise awareness within the Pacific about the need to raise their voice – shout if necessary – but it is no easy task. How can we demonstrate to the international community – at the COP in Paris and on every available soap box – that climate change mitigation shouldn’t just be about money and who to give it to but rather about our wider social and moral conscience and ensuring that we are not sacrificing the most vulnerable to economic self-interest.

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