The alarming issue of climate change for the Pacific microstates
It is no news that climate change is becoming more and more of an urgent threat, yet, still not enough is done to prevent further degradation of the Earth’s balance. Each year seems to be the hottest ever recorded in centuries, and natural disasters and carbon emissions are still on the rise. In the words of former french president Jacques Chirac, “Our home is burning but we are looking the other way.” LearnBlue’s SDG of the month for March 2021 is SDG 13, Climate Action, but I would like to focus with this piece on an aspect of climate change that is rarely covered in everyday news. This issue is that of microstates, specifically in the Pacific ocean, among the most vulnerable to the rapidly changing conditions of our planet. These islands are already extremely affected by the rising levels of the sea and of temperatures, and their populations are slowly becoming the world’s first ever climate refugees. Despite the insane threat that these small states are facing, not enough is done, especially by the larger, more impactful nations, to save them.
What are microstates?
Microstates are defined as sovereign states with very small populations or very little land, and usually a combination of both. Examples among the 31 that are officially recognized include Monaco, Liechtenstein, The Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati or Tuvalu. Many of them are located in the Pacific Ocean, facing the most dangerous early consequences of climate change.
What threats are microstates in the Pacific facing exactly?
The most obvious consequence, yet a major one, is that of rising temperatures, on land, but also in the sea. Ocean temperatures tend to rise even faster than that of land temperatures, as the extra heat in the atmosphere is absorbed by the waters. This is, as everyone can imagine, devastating for marine life struggling to adapt, but also for the economic situation of the Pacific Islanders, who depend on coral reefs, fishing or tourism to survive. Indeed, according to the SPREP, the pacific ocean provides USD $3.3 billion to Pacific countries and territories.
A direct consequence of rising temperatures is the rising of sea levels. According to the US national climate resilience toolkit in 2016, ocean temperatures in the Pacific region from the surface to a depth of 660 can rise by as much as 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and are projected to rise even faster from here on. This poses the issue of relocating populations: The Republic of the Marshall Islands therefore faces the impending problem of having to relocate its 55,000 citizens by 2030. Along with its ever-increasing levels, the sea also faces continuous ocean acidification, threatening corals, essential to the biodiversity and stability of these milieux.
Climate change is also causing natural disasters to occur more frequently, as it affects the circulation patterns of the wind and water: it has direct consequences of the strength, length and patterns of storms and other disasters in the area, affecting the environment but also the populations, who often lack the necessary resources to build up resilience to these events. For example, in 2015, the Republic of Vanuatu was absolutely devastated by Cyclone Pam, considered an exceptionally destructive phenomenon.
We’ve only covered three of the major threats that climate change poses to the existence of the microstates of the Pacific, but there are many others, like the decreasing availability of freshwater, or the less and less balanced biodiversity of many ecosystems, some harboring endemic but endangered species, in the sea but also on land.
Despite being this exposed, there has been little to no impact on international decisions, politics and relations makes it difficult for their interests to be considered by the international community. However, the UN and some countries have begun to take action for the future of these nations.
What is being done to help?
Even if more could be done, it cannot be denied that some form of action is being taken for these countries. Models have already established how the situation might evolve, further raising awareness, and many NGOs or even countries are helping.
For instance, in 2019, the Pacific Islands Forum issued the Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now, one of the most important collective statements made by the pacific leaders on climate change. Australia, among others, is working closely with these states; for example through the DFAT’s Climate Change Action Strategy, which incorporates climate change in australian action in its development program targeting neighboring countries and states.
On a more international level, the UN is committed to assisting the affected countries and areas address and adapt to the crisis, for example with FAO initiatives to help develop agricultural practices that adapt to the changing situations of these nations. The Pacific region is home to one of the highest rates of malnutrition worldwide, only emphasizing how necessary it is to provide assistance to the concerned states.
Ahead of COP26 this year, Pacific leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to fighting climate change and the urgency of this fight. Further light is being shed on the issue, but more still needs to be done, as it seems inevitable that these islands will become more and more uninhabitable as time passes and as climate change continues to worsen.
Learn what you can do to help protect oceans from the consequences of climate change here. You can also take a look at the images of the struggle of the Pacific islands here.