Background Information: Climate Change in Melanesia

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Photo credit: Iara Lee



Nowhere in the world is the threat of climate change as great as in Melanesia. There, people are fighting for their lives and livelihoods. As sea levels rise and extreme weather events become more frequent, the inhabitants of Melanesia's small islands are facing increasingly dire circumstances. Here are some key facts:




  • The people of Melanesia are becoming the world's first climate refugees. According to National Geographic, climate refugees are "people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming. Climate refugees belong to a larger group of immigrants known as environmental refugees." As some of the smaller islands in the Solomon Islands disappear due to rising seas and erosion, their inhabitants are left without a home.

    Source: National Geographic

  • Small islands like those in Melanesia contribute very little to climate change, but they are among the most vulnerable to its impact. However, as The New York Times reports, people are fighting back:
    "Small islands also are among the smallest contributors to climate change, producing less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industrialized world, their leaders say, owes some recompense for the disasters these vulnerable nations will suffer in the years ahead.

    "'The very thing that makes them wealthy is contributing to our vulnerability,' said Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda. 'It’s only fair that they provide some level of compensation.'

    "But hopes are waning that island nations will see a major increase in financial support to help address the consequences of climate change. So, too, is an effort here to expand ways for nations to adapt to future disasters. Money is not forthcoming here, and President Trump has declared that the United States, historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, will exit the Paris agreement.

    "In the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, rising sea levels are causing salt water to intrude into underground fresh water supplies. In order to adapt, the country is trying to build rainwater cisterns and new pipe systems to ensure that its people have safe drinking water supplies."

    Source: The New York Times


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  • The Pacific Islands are working to fortify themselves against climate change, despite facing destruction and displacement.
    "From Fiji to the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu to Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands’ array of low-lying islands and atolls, or chains of ring-shaped reefs, confront destruction wrought by rapidly increasing sea levels, warming temperatures, intensified storm surges and persistent droughts.

    "Some 1,700 residents of Papua New Guinea- Carteret Island’s total 2,500 inhabitants have been named the world’s first environmental refugees; more than 20,000 Marshallese climate refugees have emigrated to the U.S. due to these extreme weather conditions. Cyclone Pam, which blazed through Vanuatu in March 2015, left 75 thousand residents without homes. Cyclone Winston in February 2016—the worst storm to ever hit the Southern Hemisphere—took the lives of 44 Fijians. By 2050, the World Bank predicts rising sea tides and increasing storm surges will swallow half of Bikenibeu, a Kiribati settlement home to 6,500 people.

    "The human, social, environmental and economic costs of inaction—or insufficient action—are unacceptable, but the Pacific Island states are moving forward with plans aimed at adapting and creating greater resilience to climate change.

    "From implementing national action plans, to pushing for global reductions in carbon emissions, the Pacific Islands are fortifying themselves against a changing climate, all while taking the lead to elevate the issue on the international stage. Islands have joined the Climate Vulnerable Forum; have ratified international climate change accords, like the Paris Climate Change Agreement; and widely advocate to limit temperature rise from global warming to 1.5° Celsius."

    Source: COP 23

  • In recent years, multiple category-five cyclones hit the Pacific. According to National Geographic, Cyclone Winston, which hit Fiji in February 2016, "was the strongest tropical cyclone to hit the Southern Hemisphere in recorded time." In some communities, residents are developing innovative solutions to combat the coming storms:
    "In Tokelau, a small Polynesian community north of Samoa, communities are preemptively adapting to climate change. A community of about 350 residents on Fakaofo, one of Tokelau’s three atolls, enclosed their entire islet in five-meter high concrete walls."

    Source: National Geographic

  • Despite innovative efforts to combat climate change, the situation remains challenging for those living in Melanesia. In a report for Mashable, three journalists visited the Marshall Islands to find out how climate change was affecting daily life:
    "Even the most optimistic outcomes might not save the Marshall Islands, which are projected to be completely underwater in the coming centuries due to climate change. What’s more, they’ll be uninhabitable — and empty — well before.

    ...

    "A federal report released in 2017 projects that global average sea level will rise 'at least several inches in the next 15 years.' By 2100, a 1-to-4-foot increase is expected, though the authors warn an 8-foot increase 'cannot be ruled out.'"

    Source: Mashable

  • Between 1946 and 1958, the US nuked the Marshall Islands 67 times. "At her home in the capital of the Marshall Islands, Abacca Anjain-Maddison, a former senator of Rongelap Atoll, gathers survivors of the nuclear testing era. The women play the ukulele, sing and share memories of once pristine ancestral land now contaminated with radioactive isotopes," reports Years of Living Dangerously.

    Source: Years of Living Dangerously


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  • Meeting the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement is imperative. According to a report from The Verge, burning fossil fuels has already caused global temperatures to increase by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1800s.
    "Bleaching occurs when the colorful algae that live inside the corals are expelled. That can happen because the water is too warm or too cold, or because of extreme low tides. But bleaching is disastrous for coral reefs, because the algae provide about 90 percent of the coral’s energy.

    "Over 25 percent of marine species somewhat depend on coral reefs to survive.

    "Limiting greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris agreement goals of keeping global warming below 2.7 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit is key, [Terry Hughes, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia] says. Reducing water pollution, overfishing, and habitat destruction can also help."

    Source: The Verge

  • The Pacific Climate Warriors have created a declaration, calling on the world to take action to help save their islands. A project of 350.org, The Pacific Climate Warriors Declaration on Climate Change lays out four goals:
    1. End the era of fossil fuels and move to 100% renewable energy.

    2. Kick the big polluters out of the climate talks.

    3. Support the immediate delivery of finance needed for countries already facing irreversible loss and damage.

    4. Do what is needed to limit warming to 1.5°C.

    Source: Pacific Climate Warriors Declaration on Climate Change