Climate change and Pacific Island nations: ‘a deep betrayal’ by the West

The first China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was held on 22 October 2021 via video link, little more than a week before the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow.

Speaking of bilateral economic cooperation, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that China has signed cooperation documents for the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative with all 10 countries in the region that have built diplomatic relations with Beijing.

The growing relationship between the Pacific Island nations and China is evident from the fact that there have already been three successful China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forums. The parties have jointly promoted numerous cooperative projects.

At the meeting Minister Wang also announced that China will help the Pacific Island countries fight the COVID-19 virus by donating vaccines and establishing and sponsoring a China-Pacific Island countries fund.

The Pacific island nation of Palau just became the first ...
The Pacific island nation of Palau.

China’s support for the Pacific Island sates at the recent COP26 session of the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow stands out in stark contrast to the failure of the rich Western countries’ repeated failure to back realistic funding for climate mitigation actions by developing nations.

The English Guardian newspaper reported that ‘Pacific representatives and negotiators have condemned the outcome of the Cop26 meeting as “watered down” and a “monumental failure” that puts Pacific nations in severe existential danger.’

A senior Pacific political adviser, Auimatagi Joe Moeono-Kolio, who has worked with Pacific governments under the process of the UN framework convention on climate change, was reported by the Guardian as saying: ‘Cop26 also failed to adequately recognise our present reality – we are facing the impacts of climate change right now. … Yet despite their historical responsibility for our current plight, developed nations like the US, UK and Australia refused to support a funding facility for loss and damage which, in Australia’s case, presents a deep betrayal and abdication of its responsibilities to its Pacific neighbours.


Some key ecological facts about the Pacific region

  1. Marine resources play a significant role in the economic development and culture of Pacific island states. Pacific island states have the largest combined EEZs in the world.
  2. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s tuna landings come from Pacific waters. The tuna industry in the Pacific region is US$40 billion per year and supports a range of livelihoods. However, most of the income from this fishery is derived by distant water fishing agencies.
  3. The Pacific Ocean has more marine species than any other ocean basin.
  4. The South Pacific basin is the largest of the basins that hold the world’s ocean.
  5. 70% of the global fish catch is from the Pacific.
  6. The Pacific region is home to approximately 25% of the worlds coral reefs and has the most coral reef species in the world.
  7. The Pacific leads the world in the establishment of large Marine Protected Areas and sanctuaries for sharks and whales, covering millions of square kilometres of SPREP Member EEZs.
  8. The Pacific Ocean is home to over half of the world’s whale and dolphin species. Whale-watching is a multi-million-dollar Pacific industry.
  9. About 70% of the protein in the diet of Pacific islanders is from near-shore pelagic, reef, and lagoon fisheries.

The vital resources and ecosystems upon which Pacific islands depend for their sustenance and livelihoods are under increasing pressure. Foremost among the threats is climate change, a deeply troubling issue for the environmental, economic, and social viability of Pacific island countries and territories. Climate change is already having very real impacts on coastal and forest ecosystems, our oceans, fresh water supplies, biodiversity, and indeed all aspects of life – particularly on communities in small, low-lying countries where sea level rise and changing weather patterns are creating social and economic disruption.

Increasing harvesting pressures on natural resources, destruction and modification of habitats and ecosystems in the quest for development, and severe reductions in species populations continue to threaten the integrity and health of the vulnerable natural systems on which all island life depends. Waste and pollution generated from an increasingly consumer-based way of life put ecosystems and human wellbeing at risk.

For Pacific Islanders, the ocean is a vital economic, social, and cultural lifeline. The region’s twenty one island countries and territories have an ocean-based economy focused on maritime transportation and shipping, fisheries, extractive industries and prospecting for oil and gas as well as tourism. Fishing licensing and revenue fees alone were estimated at USD 474 million in 2016  and are projected to increase. Tourism, a key source of income and employment in the Pacific, contributes in some cases up to 70% of a country’s GDP. While estimating the monetary net worth of the ocean remains a challenge, the value of ocean resources is deeply acknowledged by the Pacific peoples. Rural communities focus on fishing and aquaculture for their livelihoods and there is a high dietary reliance on fish. Shells, marine mammal ivory and pearls are central to Pacific jewellery and other decorative products. 

Pacific island countries and territories are highly vulnerable to climate change,  Climate change represents the most significant threat to the Pacific way of life, and it will exacerbate other challenges already affecting the region, putting at risk the development gains the region has made in recent years.

While there is consensus among researchers about the detrimental impact of climate change on the ocean, what is less studied is what impact the changes in the environment will have on Pacific Islanders’ livelihoods, security, culture and well-being. Responding to this will be crucial for Pacific Islanders’ to better prepare and adapt for an uncertain future, and to understand what the responses will be needed to deal with demographic and migration pressures from rising seas levels.

Who are the Pacific Islands?

Twenty one Pacific Island countries and territories are dispersed across the sprawling Pacific Ocean. These Pacific Islands reflect a broad diversity from population sizes to culture but also share a common “Blue Pacific” identity. Pacific countries face similar economic challenges related to remoteness, exposure to natural hazards, climate change and limited resources. The island nations fall under the category of “small island developing states”.

The climate change-ocean-migration nexus

The Paris Agreement, whose long-term goal is to enhance climate action to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, only made a single reference to oceans. Since then, Pacific countries and territories have advocated strongly for acknowledgement of the “climate change-ocean nexus”, resulting in the upcoming twenty-fifth Conference of Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to assess progress in climate action to be dubbed the blue COP.   

The idea of the nexus is rooted in data and evidence. Scientists agree that climate change is contributing to an increase in sea temperature, as a large share of excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions is absorbed by the ocean. At the same time, studies show that the ocean is becoming increasingly acidic and is losing oxygen. This combines with the adverse consequences of sea level rise and extreme events, although with varied extents across the Pacific region. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier especially in areas already affected by pollution, overfishing, overpopulation and degradation of biodiversity. Cascade impacts may denote a potential decline in number and health of fish stocks due to warmer water; migration and dispersion of fish species; inland shifting of mangroves; changes to seagrasses; salinity intrusion in farmlands; coral bleaching and subsequent degradation of its ecosystem. 

These changes in the ocean increasingly affect the physical, economic, political and social drivers of human migration through direct and indirect impacts on the human security of populations dependent on natural and ocean-based resources or living in areas exposed to hazards.   

There are a large number of scientific studies exploring ocean changes related to climate change, but fewer on how this affects food, water, health and livelihood security. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s fifth assessment report mentions that though there is high confidence on the degradation of coral reefs, there is poor understanding of the implications for those communities dependent on these. 

Indeed, while there is a consensus that coral reef or atoll nations like Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Republic of the Marshall Islands will be most affected, not enough is documented or examined on how coastal communities experience these changes, their adaptation responses and limits. In cases where this information exists, dissemination continues to be a challenge. 

In the context of climate migration, significant focus of the global discourse has been on complete inundation of islands and potential relocation. Discussion and data on current human migration trends, both internal and cross-border, how climate change drives these, the process and outcomes especially for rural ocean-dependent communities remains lacking. 

Research conducted under the Pacific Climate Change and Migration project from 2013-2016 noted that over 60 per cent of respondents in Tuvalu and Kiribati would migrate if sea level rise, salt water intrusion and floods continue and are aggravated and if there are fewer fish in the sea. However, further research needs to understand how many people are highly dependent on marine resources, current coping strategies for these populations, expected adaptation strategies and migration trends- where would they go and what would they do?


Migration Data Portal, September 2019

UNEP, Secretariat of the Pacific Environment Programme – The SPREP Convention

The Guardian, 15 Nov 2021.

RNZ News, 22 October 2021.