The Pacific Islands at the frontlines of climate change

 

The Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian Islands are all threatened by the impacts of climate change. The island nations in the Pacific are heavily affected by the growth in numbers of extreme weather events such as powerful cyclones, the depletion of biodiversity and fish in the ocean, damaged reefs and fisheries, rising sea temperatures resulting in coral bleaching, rising sea levels, erosion and so on.

It was recently discovered that 5 tiny Pacific islands disappeared due to rising sea level and erosion while 6 others had large swaths of land washed into the sea, with some villages entirely destroyed. The islands were part of Solomon Islands, where the ocean has been rising an average of 7mm per year, more than double the global average. This is largely due to growing intensity of trade winds in the Pacific, which has been driven partly by global warming and partly by climatic cycles. Wave energy also appears to play a large role in the dramatic erosion observed in Solomon Islands and the rapid changes to its shorelines have led to relocation of several coastal communities already.

Another Pacific nation at risk from the rising sea levels is Kiribati, a collection of 33 coral atolls and reef islands which lies no higher than 2 metres above sea level. For years, scientists have been warning that much of Kiribati may become uninhabitable within just decades. They are predicting coral reefs degrading due to warming water, stronger waves slamming the coast, increasing erosion, disruption to food supply and intrusion of salt water into freshwater supplies, higher temperatures and rainfalls increasing prevalence of certain diseases.

It was a Kiribati citizen, Ioane Teitiota, who in 2012 applied for asylum in New Zealand/Aotearoa, arguing that the saltwater intrusion made him unable to grow food and find potable water. The courts rejected his argument and he was subsequently deported from New Zealand. Island nations under threat from rising sea levels in the Pacific also include Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Islands of Palmerston, Marshall Islands, Cook Islands and Fiji.

It is highly disappointing that at the same time as small Pacific nations attempt to bring the world’s attention to these issues, Australia continues to rank so poorly on matters of climate and the environment. In 2018 it was among the worst in world on climate action according to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG Index). The measure takes into account greenhouse gas emissions within Australia, emissions embodied in consumed goods, climate change vulnerability and emissions exported to other countries. Australia’s annual exported CO2 emissions are a colossal 44 tonnes per person, outstripping even Saudi Arabia (35.5 tonnes per person).

Global warming is impacting the continent of Australia as well, from deeper droughts, harsher storms, floods and bushfires to an ongoing bleaching of the iconic Great Barrier Reef. In light of coal constituting the biggest driver of global warming, Australia’s commitment to coal mining and exports is an obvious recipe for disaster. The world’s biggest coal export port lies on the eastern coast in Newcastle, north of Sydney. Instead of divesting from coal and towards less destructive sources of energy, new coal mines are still being built and proposed. Adani’s Carmichael mine in Queensland, if it goes ahead, will create up to 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon pollution and unlock one of the largest untapped coal reserves on Earth, in the meantime consuming billions of litres of groundwater and risking damage to aquifers of the Great Artesian Basin. It’s time to stop Adani!

 

Colonialist land exploitation

 

The exploitation of Nauru by British and Australian powers is not a new phenomenon and not limited to the construction of detention centres for imprisonment of refugees on the island. Nauru, like many other Pacific nations, was colonised by Germany and later ‘managed’ and occupied by Australia, Britain and New Zealand and served as a military site as well as a source of mineral extraction. At the beginning of 20th century, the British Pacific Phosphate Company began to mine phosphate discovered on the island and in the first year alone, 5000 kg of it were shipped to Australia. United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand governments were in charge of phosphate mining on Nauru up until 1970, when newly independent nation purchased rights to the business and continued the mining operations. Nauru took legal action against Australia in the ICJ due to Australia’s failure to remedy the environmental damage caused by the mining. The mine has taken more than 80% of Nauru’s land and it limited habitable land. The water table is contaminated with mining effluent and rubbish and a lot of the soil is not adequate for growing food. Food insecurity is on the rise, compounded by depletion of fish stock through negative effects of climate change on ocean life. The environmental issues of the island add up, affecting the land, the water, food supply and biological diversity.

Nauru is one of many Pacific nations historically and currently affected by colonial environmental exploitation as well as climate change. Phosphate for Australian agriculture was also extracted from Christmas Island, Banaba Island and Makatea in French Polynesia. Years after 1966 which saw the end of mining in Makatea, a Newcastle mining engineer, Colin Randall, is trying to convince the local population and governance to re-open the industry.

Another island heavily affected by mining industry is Bougainville (an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea), where in 1972 Australian colonial administration and the British Australian mining giant Rio Tinto developed and opened Panguna mine, despite local resistance. Due to pollution of agricultural land and waterways, local landowners continued to protest against the mine. Their opposition brought violence from PNG Defence Forces, supported and supplied by Rio Tinto and the Australian government, resulting in a decade long civil war. The conflict was brutal and took over 20000 lives, both as a result of attacks and a universal blockade which stopped all import to the island, including food and medicines. The mine was closed in 1989, but the pollution from mine tailings has since been flowing into the environment. River water polluted by acids leached from the crushed tailings now floods huge areas of people’s land and the communities say that there has been no fish in the local rivers for decades. There has been no official assessment of the damage since the closing of the mine and Rio Tinto refuses any accountability for its environmental impacts.

Deep seabed mining

 

In Papua New Guinea, a new and concerning form of mining is being considered. In the 1960s the prospect of deep seabed mining was brought up by the publication of J. L. Mero’s book, claiming that nearly limitless supplies of cobalt, nickel and other metals could be found throughout the planet’s oceans. PNG was the first country to approve a permit for the exploration of minerals in the deep seabed. The Solwara 1 project, which is located at 1600 metres water depth in the Bismarck Sea, has found in the waters off PNG a high grade copper-gold resource and the world’s first seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) resource. Solwara 1 was awarded its license and environmental permits despite three independent reviews of the environmental impact statement finding significant deficiencies in the science and modelling employed by Nautilus (see http://www.deepseaminingoutofourdepth.org/report/)

US based consultancy firm Earth Economics (EE), which Nautilus commissioned to write the report, compared the social and environmental impacts of the Solwara 1 deep sea mining project to existing and proposed land-based copper mines. “Comparing the impacts of Solwara 1 to selectively chosen land-based mines is like comparing apples to oranges,” said Payal Sampat, Mining Program Director of Earthworks. She continued, “Nautilus commissioned a study that purports to make a case for seabed mining – but which neglects to value marine ecosystem services, or consider the likely impacts on sea water quality, marine ecosystems, or communities who depend on healthy oceans.”

There is widespread concern about the impact that deep seabed mining would have on the ecosystems and habitats of the sea and about how the process of mining can be managed. The practice is at an early stage – highly speculative and experimental. Consequently, the nature of the adverse impacts on deep sea ecosystems remains unknown. However, the existing information has led scientists to warn that biodiversity loss would be inevitable and likely irreversible if deep seabed mining was permitted to occur, as well as to state that the activity could directly impact tens of thousands of square kilometres of seabed in deep abyssal plain areas and potentially release both toxic chemicals and vast sediment plumes (which are caused when the tailings from mining are dumped back into the ocean, creating a cloud of particles floating in the water, which can impact zooplankton and light penetration, in turn affecting the food web of the area). Removing parts of the sea floor could disturb the habitat of benthic organisms, with unknown long-term effects. Research shows that poly-metallic nodule fields, where the resources that deep seabed mining would exploit are located, are hotspots of abundance and diversity for a highly vulnerable abyssal fauna. Aside from the direct impact of mining the area, some researchers and environmental activists have raised concerns about leakage, spills and corrosion that could alter the mining area’s chemical makeup.

Luckily for the environment, the current situation of Nautilus seems quite difficult, with company stating that mining at Solwara 1 will now be delayed, as the firms finances are making a descent. Some $350m is required to get mining going, but, as of September 30th, Nautilus only had $200,000 of cash. To add to these problems, it appears to have lost the specialised support vessel that it had planned to use.

Illegal forestry

 

Another major threat to the biodiversity of New Guinea island comes from deforestation as a result of logging and conversion to agriculture, particularly palm oil. The island still contains the largest tract of primary tropical forest remaining in Asia Pacific and it shelters 6 to 8% of the world’s species, but despite of this exceptional ecological value, it continues to be exploited for resource extraction. Between 1972 and 2002 around 24% of rainforests in PNG were cleared or degraded due to logging and agriculture with deforestation resulting largely from illegal logging, contributing to 70-90% of all timber exports. According to a report published by Greenpeace in 2012, over 5 million hectares of land had been improperly leased through so-called Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs). In 2013, PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said that a Commission of Inquiry into the SABLs, “revealed a shocking trend of corruption and mismanagement in all stages in the process”. In addition to SABLs, the government has issued 10 million hectares of logging concessions. One of the main logging companies involved has been the Malaysian timber conglomerate Rimbunan Hijau (RH), which in 2008 admitted in court that it had been awarded logging rights in PNG illegally.

Resilience

 

Although the Pacific faces a great challenge, the people of the large Ocean States are leading the way in adaptation efforts already in progress – strengthening water and food security, climate-proofing infrastructure, fortifying shorelines, and other coastal protections.

Vanuatu is known for having the worlds strictest plastic bans. Tokelau is known as the first country in the world to transition to 100% renewable energy. Marshall Islands hosted the first Zero Carbon Emission Climate Conference with over 40 countries participating.

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