« Pacific Island Peoples » – K.P. Rushton

« Pacific Island Peoples: Resilience and Climate Change »

By: Kathleen P. Rushton

Table of contents – Table de matières – Indice – Inhaltsverzeichnis – 指數
English: Minorities – – Italiano: Minoranze
François: Minorités – – Português: Minoridades
Deutsch: Minderheiten – – Español: Minorías – – 中國人: 並通過

Instead of the globe showing the Northern Hemisphere, in the illustration before me, on the shoulders of Atlas was the Southern Hemisphere and at its centre the Pacific Ocean.[1] I saw my country as of the Pacific Ocean. For Luamanuvau Winne Laban, ‘in’ and ‘of’ are small words which have deep and subtle meaning. Aotearoa New Zealanders are of the Pacific. One can be in the Pacific and stand apart as an observer or outsider. Being ‘of” the Pacific ‘gives a much greater sense of participation, of ownership, accountability and responsibility for actions taken’.[2] In this article, I address the increasing marginalization of the often forgotten minority of Pacific Island peoples living with climate change.[3] I do so as a Pakeha woman of Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZ). Decades after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi between Maori and the British Government in 1840, my Irish and English forebears sailed across part of that vast Pacific Ocean in 1860s-1870s.[4] ANZ, along with Australia, is significant for Pacific nations in matters of sustainable development and stability (aid donors, trading, transport routes, education and health services, defence and large populations of Pacific Islanders live in both countries) but up until recently they have taken different trajectories in their commitments to the Kyoto Protocol.[5]

Extending over one-third of the surface of the planet, the Pacific Ocean is the largest geographical feature on Earth. Within this ‘water continent’ is found more than 20,000 islands.[6] The late Epli Hau’ofa gives an expansive view of the Pacific in which for millennia this sea of islands has been linked by the ocean:

…a large world in which people and cultures moved and mingled, unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers. From one island to another [people of the Pacific] sailed to trade and to marry; thereby expanding social networks for greater flows of wealth. They travelled to visit relatives in a wide variety of natural and cultural surroundings, to quench their thirst for adventure, and even to fight and dominate.[7]

Today, the ancestral homes of Pacific Islanders are among the most threatened by climate change. I am able only to sketch a very complex issue to which there are two main responses: mitigation and adaptation. To speak of Pacific Island nations is to risk collapsing the diversity Hau’ofa alludes to as existing within and among these peoples.

[1] Cartoon for Atlas Hanging, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 1989, by Raymond Boyce.

[2] L. W. Laban, ‘Closing Remarks,’ in B. Lynch and G. Hassall (eds), Resilience in the Pacific: Addressing the Critical Issues,Wellington: New Institute of International Affairs, 2011, p.191. 

[3] More often than not, the Pacific is omitted in discussions on climate change, e.g., R.W. Miller, ‘Thinking the Unthinkable: The Theologian and the Planetary Emergency’, in J. Brumbaugh and N. Imperatori-Lee (eds), Turning to the Heavens and the Earth: Theological Reflections on a Cosmological Conversion Essays in Honor of Elizabeth A. Johnson, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016, pp.236-237.

[4] The Maori term, ‘Pakeha’ refers to an Aotearoa New Zealander of European heritage. ‘Aotearoa’ is a Maori name for New Zealand. Te Tiriti o Waitangi refers to the Treaty of Waitangi.

[5] J. Barnett and J. Campbell, Climate Change and Small Island States: Power, Knowledge and the South Pacific, London: Earthscan, 2010, pp.106-109.

[6] S. Roger Fischer, A History of the Pacific Islands, 2nd ed., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. xvii. On the political status of these 22 countries and territories, see Barnett and Campbell, Climate Change, p.5. On the environment, history, culture, population and economy, see M. Rapaport (ed.), The Pacific Islands: Environment and Society, rev. ed. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013.

[7] Quoted by Laban, ‘Closing Remarks,’ p. 191.

1. Views on Climate Change

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 1992 (UNFCCC) is foundational for understanding global policies which influence climate change activities in the Pacific Islands and the influence of these small island developing states (SIDS) on global policy.[8] Article 4.8 of the UNFCCC is very important because full consideration should be given to meeting the needs of small island countries to respond to the harmful effects of global warming. This implies all countries have a commitment to help them with adaptation. Developed countries are committed in Article 4.2 to ‘adapt national policies and take corresponding measures on the mitigation of climate change, by limiting [their] anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing [their] greenhouse gas and reservoirs’.[9]

Jon Barrett and John Campbell’s research is critical of much science and policy on climate change in the Pacific region.[10] They critique the discourse of danger in scientific and popular discourses which emphasize vulnerability, smallness and isolation and see no possibility but the choice to flee as refugees.[11] This representation obscures the complexity, the range of variations and the actualities of the lives and livelihoods of the people and their resilience. Ignored is the possibility of adaptation thereby with suitable assistance island communities may be able to construct effective responses to climate change. Such an approach undermines pressure to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (mitigation) in the developed world.[12]

[8] For an overview of the emergence of climate change as a global policy issue and the place of Pacific nations within this, see Barnett and Campbell, Climate Change, pp.85-110.

[9] See: See, W. French, ‘Ask the Winds, Rains and Waves around Us: Justice and Prudence in a Time of Planetary Emergency’, in J. Brumbaugh and N. Imperatori-Lee (eds), Turning to the Heavens and the Earth: Theological Reflections on a Cosmological Conversion Essays in Honor of Elizabeth A. Johnson, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016, pp.152-158, on a moral climate justice framework and just pricing policy.

[10] Barnett and Campbell, Climate Change, pp. 110-174.

[11] Ibid., pp. 170-174. 

[12] Ibid., pp. 155-174.

The affirming of the goals of the Paris Agreement of December 2015 was due largely to input from Pacific leaders such as Anote Tong, President of the Republic of Kiribati, one of the most affected nations. In his key address at the Pacific Climate Change Conference (PCCC) at Victoria University of Wellington inFebruary 2016, Tong said: ‘We (in Kiribati) are on the frontline now, but we will all be on the frontline soon’. For him, climate change is ‘a moral challenge [which] necessitates a whole new thinking’ and a radical change in global thinking and commitment. He refers to being ignored by the global community ‘who unfairly have and continue to contribute to Climate Change and equally unfairly have the greater capacity to provide the much needed resources to stem the tide of Climate Change’.[13] Part of the strategy of adaptation must be relocation and his people must be prepared to seek a new home in another country. Under Tong’s leadership, his government has been implementing a relocation plan for some of the island’s 105,000 people, which includes purchasing land on a Fijian island in 2014. 

2. A Single Approach

At the Meeting of Pacific Islands Forum Leaders held in Federated States of Micronesia in September 2016,[14] the Strategy for Climate and Disaster Resilient Development in the Pacific, the first of its kind in the world, was adopted. In a single approach to build long-term sustainability and resilience for the Pacific nations, this strategy brings together both climate change and disaster risk management. Speaking at the PCCC, Claire Anterea of Kiribati explained that there are two kinds of resilience: one based on culture and another based on money. In their 33 islands, resilience, which is based on money, builds seas walls; freshwater systems need to be complemented by building community resilience and solidarity: ‘Our culture speaks strongly here … we need to keep building resilience among us, and our brothers and sisters from all over the Pacific’.[15] Another voice of the Pacific is Koreti Tiumalu, the Pacific Coordinator, who leads the enculturation of this movement known as the Pacific Climate Warriors: ‘We cannot build a Pacific Climate Movement without engaging our faith communities. Faith is pivotal to our people, and like the ocean, it connects us. In the face of the climate crisis, we need prayer to carry our people and faith to build resilience’.[16]

[14] On this political grouping of sixteen independent states and the status of Pacific nations which are not independent, see

[15]  Hungry for Justice, Thirsty for Change: Caritas State of Environment Report for Oceania 2016, p. 55.

[16] See; and the Tiumalu’s address at PCCC.

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