A Pacific Response to Climate Change


John E Hay is Woodward-Clyde Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He presents his thoughts on the implications of climate change for small island developing states of the Pacific.

A COMMON PERCEPTION is that the dominant impact of global warming for Pacific island countries will be the drowning of atolls due to rising sea level, with the resultant creation of "environmental refugees". The truth is very different, but no less serious.

While the form the global changes in climate will take in the Pacific is far from certain, the most significant and more immediate consequences are likely to be related to changes in rainfall regimes and soil moisture budgets, prevailing winds (both speed and direction) and in short-term variations in regional and local sea levels and patterns of wave action.

Vulnerability and other assessments undertaken over the last few years, often in association with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reveal that climate change will impose diverse and significant impacts on Pacific island countries.

The large interannual variability in the climate signal in the Pacific presents challenges and opportunities to both climate scientists and policy makers alike.

While the present generation of global climate models fails to resolve the spatial scales of relevance to Pacific island countries, available evidence suggests that the predicted changes in the global climate may not manifest themselves in the Pacific, especially for temperature and sea level. Significantly, the findings recently reported by the IPCC suggest that the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon—so fundamental to the Pacific—may be relatively insensitive to climate change.

But there is also concern that key changes could occur should thresholds be exceeded. Similarly for the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones. Their incidence is of critical importance—beneficial or detrimental depending on circumstances—to most Pacific island countries. The conflicting evidence has led the IPCC to conclude that nothing definitive on their response to global warming can be stated at this time.

Pacific scene

Photo: Sarah Granich

For Pacific island countries, the development of responses to global warming is further impeded by the fact that many regional and national vulnerability assessments have been undertaken using methodologies which are, at best, poorly harmonized with local conditions. Local applicability of methods is frequently in conflict with the legitimate desire to undertake studies using comparable methods that facilitate global intercomparisons and global assessments.

However, in the Pacific there is little chance that assessments will have validity if they ignore the local dominance of subsistence economies, customary land ownership and village-based decision making.

Such equivocal findings must be considered along with the limited capacity of Pacific island countries—perhaps of most relevance is the limited adaptive capacity. Also of importance are the limited local capacity to mitigate climate change and even to characterize the anticipated regional changes in climate and identify appropriate response options.

Responding to possible climate change

There are two main categories of active response to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. The need for both has been recognized in the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), as well as in other agreements and strategies.

Mitigation refers to those activities which seek to reduce the build up of greenhouse gas and other climate-modifying constituents and thereby reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change. Many countries in the Pacific have done little to cause changes in atmospheric composition and hence in the global climate. Moreover, few are in a position, by themselves, to directly influence mitigation. But collectively Pacific island countries can have an influence on mitigation, as has been amply illustrated during the negotiations leading to the UNFCCC. Consistent with the Convention, Pacific island countries are also active in reporting on and implementing mitigation strategies. For all these reasons, adaptation rather than mitigation strategies are emphasized in the following discussion.

Adaptation is used in the present context to refer to those activities which enable communities, now or in the future, to cope with changes resulting from global warming. It therefore includes activities which seek to offset the costs and increase the benefits that may accrue from climate change. Adaptive responses can be many and varied, reflecting differences in existing social, economic, cultural and environmental conditions and the likely stresses induced by climate change, both within and between countries.

International effort has tended to focus on gaining agreement to limit climate change. Significantly, even if an agreement to totally halt human-induced changes in atmospheric composition could be reached today, there would be residual effects far into the future. These would be due to lags in the response of the climate system to changes in atmospheric composition that resulted from human activity over the preceding decade or more. In the event that significant reductions in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are not achieved for some time, adaptive action becomes even more necessary.

Many adaptation strategies are effectively the same as those which constitute sound environmental management, wise resource use and appropriate responses to present-day climate variability. Often the strategies are found in policies and plans for sustainable development. Thus, adaptive responses may well be beneficial even if the climate does not change as anticipated. Resource and environmental management strategies which are beneficial for reasons other than climate change, and which can be justified by current evaluation criteria and decision rules, may well be the measures to select first in developing responses to climate change. This approach is referred to as the "no regrets" strategy.

Proposed policy responses for Pacific island countries

The fundamental motive to protect environmental and human health and welfare is inducing island countries in the Pacific to do everything in their power to limit climate change and to plan appropriate adaptations for changes that are anticipated to occur despite international attempts at mitigation. In addition, such planning and policy initiatives must be taken if Parties to the UNFCCC are to meet their obligations.

The current lack of information and understanding means that it is premature to be prescriptive regarding regional response strategies and priorities for addressing the impacts of climate change on Pacific island countries. Much remains to be accomplished in terms of both information gathering and methodology development before the procedures for assessing regional climate impacts and identifying optimal response options (be they mitigation, adaptation or simply no regrets) can be implemented in a comprehensive and rigorous manner for the Pacific region. Indeed, meeting these prerequisites is a high priority in response formulation.

There are several regional responses which would facilitate adaptation to climate change. Priority is given to no regrets policies and plans for, as also noted earlier, these form the basis of sound environmental and resource management regardless of climate and related changes.

A policy of regional cooperation and coordination

A policy of enhanced regional cooperation would facilitate collective responses to problems of mutual concern. Such a policy expedites activities which no single state or institution can undertake effectively in an isolated way and helps offset a weak knowledge base, any lack of understanding, poor capacity to access, share and act on information and a limited appreciation of the range of responses available for consideration.

A policy of strengthened regional coordination of activities is necessary if redundancies in effort are to be avoided. But the priority must be implementation rather than coordination and administration. Regional initiatives should not conflict with efforts to strengthen the capacity to implement policies and plans at national and community levels. As a "bottom up" strategy, the latter is more consistent with traditional approaches in the Pacific. These can be integrated with benefits that flow from international and regional initiatives.

A policy of owning the issue of climate variability and change

To date the consensus view in the Pacific has been to view climate change as an imposition, forced on the region by external sources. This has resulted in an unfortunate distinction being made between responses that address possible future changes in climate and those which are concerned with the detrimental consequences of variations in the current climate. A policy of owning the issue of climate variability and change would consider the gains associated with linking these two perspectives.

A policy of maximizing the benefits of climate change

A policy of maximizing any benefits of climate change in no way implies that the atmospheric pollution which leads to global warming should be condoned due to the positive consequences. It goes hand in hand with a policy to minimize the costs of climate change, through both mitigation and adaptation. The consensus view globally, and for the Pacific region, is that positive outcomes are few and are more than offset by the costs. But the acknowledged inevitability of climate change, despite uncertainty as to its nature, means that some benefits will likely accrue to regions and nations.

A policy to base plans and actions on factual understanding of climate change

This policy recognizes that sometimes both views on, and the consequent responses to, climate change have been influenced by misinformation, either deliberate or inadvertent. Any short-term gains achieved in this way will be eroded once the credibility of the information and actions are called into question. Uncertainty should not be manipulated in ways which raise people's fears, cause emotional stress and force reluctant responses.

A policy of mainstreaming climate change responses in national planning

There is a need to harmonize the policies and activities which impact on environmental quality, economic development, social progress and cultural values. This goal will be achieved most readily through the adoption of sustainable management policies and practices. Under a policy of mainstreaming climate change responses in national planning, one task would be to ensure the economic mainstreaming of climate change response strategies by having them become integral components of such modalities as national development and disaster management plans and national environmental management strategies.

A policy of enhancing capacities to respond to the consequences of anticipated changes in climate

This policy reflects the lack of capacity in the Pacific region to achieve the desired goals. Shortcomings may be identified in terms of:

  • human resources (e.g. lack of individuals with appropriate training and in relevant employment; absence of well informed politicians and public);
  • institutional structures (e.g. need for improved linkages between the public and private sectors);
  • governance arrangements (e.g. sectoral as opposed to cross-sectoral systems);
  • legislation (e.g. sector and media-based legislation rather than integrated);
  • technologies (e.g. failure to retain, develop or transfer environmentally-sound and sustainable technologies);
  • infrastructure (e.g. inability to maintain coastal protection systems);
  • intellectual property (e.g. lack of ability to develop genetic resources); and, financial (e.g. absence of relevant insurance mechanisms).

Agenda 21 has identified strategies by which such shortcomings might be addressed, as have the follow-up initiatives such as the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. Within the overall policy, a priority might be that of developing an endogenous and sustainable capacity. Only then can the other policies be implemented in ways that are appropriate to the immediate and long-term needs of the region.

A policy of enhancing regional security

Such a policy would recognize that national or regional security is no longer measured in terms of military strength. Other factors, including vulnerability to natural disasters, are now carrying equal if not greater weight. Water shortages, soil degradation, food shortages, air pollution and habitat destruction are all capable of fomenting social, economic and political unrest. It is not a great step to include climate change amongst these factors, either as a direct or contributing cause.

Efforts to limit climate change, and/or to adapt to its adverse consequences with minimum disruption, can make desirable contributions to national and well as regional security.

Priority policies

The policies outlined above are mutually supportive, rather than conflicting or competing. As such they could well be accorded equal and high priority with respect to implementation. However, securing the capacity to implement the policies could be given some overall priority. This would help ensure that the remaining policies are implemented in a favourable milieu and in a sustainable manner.

Proposed regional action strategies of high priority

Vulnerability assessments have confirmed the need for urgent action at the regional level to alleviate the adverse impacts of climate change on human, environmental and economic sectors of Pacific island countries. Proposed response strategies identified below are developed in the context of the previously articulated policies. The priority ascribed to them reflects the vulnerability and resilience of Pacific island countries to climate and related changes.

A strategy for capacity building

Capacity building has been accorded a high priority at the policy level. Human resources development will be accorded paramount priority here. In terms of awareness raising, the recently completed Second Assessment by the IPCC represents an excellent opportunity to undertake comprehensive programmes for awareness raising in the Pacific. Immediate target groups could include national politicians, senior government officials, community leaders, media professionals and practitioners in the formal and non-formal education sectors. Through these groups, awareness would be enhanced in the public at large and the necessary official processes would therefore take place in a more understanding environment.

Technical capacities need to be enhanced in the following areas:

  • preparing and reporting on national inventories of greenhouse gas sources and sinks and on options for limiting anthropogenic emissions and enhancing sinks of greenhouse gases;
  • undertaking and reporting on national assessments of vulnerability to future climate change and accelerated sea-level rise and on associated adaptation options;
  • management systems for information relevant to climate change assessment and response studies (including GIS, natural resource and environmental accounting systems and decision support systems); and,
  • development and maintenance of environmentally sound and sustainable technologies and infrastructure which will reduce vulnerabilities to climate change and sea-level rise.

Developing the ability to provide nationally relevant forecasts of atmospheric and marine conditions—from seasonal to long term—may well be a high priority. This might require establishment of a Regional Climate Analysis and Prediction Centre, possibly by extending the current capacity of the Regional Weather Forecasting Centre at Nadi, Fiji. Coincident with such a development would be the need to strengthen research institutions and programmes so they can support this and related initiatives.

Much of this capacity building could take place within the framework of the UNFCCC. Excellent progress has already been made through CC:TRAIN, a joint initiative of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the UNFCCC Secretariat. As elaborated below, a regional climate change convention could be a possible additional mechanism to develop the ability of the region to both limit and adapt to climate change. It could contain provisions which ensure that both non-parties to the UNFCCC and the Pacific territories of countries which are parties can derive benefits which are in line with their specific needs as well as those of the region.

A strategy for development and application of appropriate assessment methodologies and information sources

The IPCC has prepared technical guidelines for assessing climate change impacts and adaptations. These methods need to be systematically applied to Pacific island countries to develop both national and regional assessments of impacts and to thence prepare adaptation strategies. Initial studies have identified numerous difficulties in applying the IPCC methodologies. In response, more fitting methods have been developed. But these too have shortcomings and the multiplicity of approaches currently being used within the region is far from ideal. It also inhibits preparation of the important global assessments based on individual country studies.

There is thus an urgent need to develop and evaluate a methodological framework that is both internationally accepted and applicable to the distinctive conditions existing in Pacific island countries. Once a common approach has been agreed upon, a combination of regional cooperation and national commitment could be activated to ensure that impact assessments are undertaken in all countries and that the indicated adaptation strategies are implemented.

A strategy to identify, assess and implement technologies relevant to adaptation

As noted above, Pacific island countries might consider employing a variety of environmentally sound technologies which will facilitate adaptation to climate change. These could include both indigenous technologies in current or former use and those in existence or under development in other countries, in the region and further afield.

The strategy could incorporate such steps as identifying candidate technologies, assessing their appropriateness, establishing the procedures for technology transfer and use, and ensuring adequate ongoing support for maintenance and upgrading.

A strategy to identify, assess and implement investment instruments relevant to adaptation

Adaptive responses often involve large up-front costs, with long-term payback periods. Moreover, responses which simply maintain the status quo may also carry large costs. The associated risks are often spread through such instruments as insurance. Governments and bi- and multi-lateral donors can no longer be expected to underwrite the risks associated with climate change. The private sector should be encouraged to see climate change as both an opportunity and a cost of conducting business in the region. But "surprises" associated with climate change may jeopardize instruments such as loans and insurance.

The distinctiveness of the Pacific region suggests the use of a suite of investment instruments that reflect the needs, opportunities and risks which prevail in that part of the globe. Such findings would have benefit to other regions where small island nations and territories can be found. There might be merit if adoption of the more appropriate instruments was formalized through negotiated provisions in regional and international agreements related to climate change.

A strategy to support optimal management responses to climate change at the national level

This strategy involves assisting countries and territories to integrate environmental management, disaster management and development planning policies and actions. This would have to be reflected in institutional arrangements, systems of governance, financial support, infrastructure and technical resources. Ideally, the response would be extended to coastal, marine as well as terrestrial environments, be cross-sectoral and be able to draw on nationally relevant predictions of future climate, both mean and extreme.

An example would be to establish mechanisms that support development of rational and sustainable responses to anticipated systematic changes in wind and wave patterns. This may lead to a need to protect selected coastal areas in parts of a given country or territory as a consequence of increased vulnerability to extreme events, such as a storm surge, and of additional infrastructure in the coastal margins due to economic growth and social development.

Other examples include institutional strengthening and restructuring, formulation of insurance packages reflective of increased threat to coastal systems, and revision of trade agreements in light of changed cropping patterns and consumer demand.

A strategy for regional support for integrated coastal zone management

Parties to the UNFCCC are required to develop and elaborate appropriate and integrated plans for coastal management—by 1997 for developing countries. This places an enormous burden on the Pacific island countries which are parties to the Convention. In order to both spread this burden and ensure that optimal strategies are implemented in all countries (i.e. not only states parties) there is an urgent need for regional support for integrated coastal zone management. This could be achieved within the framework of National Environmental Management Strategies and national plans.

Regional organizations such as the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the South Pacific Applied Geosciences Commission (SOPAC) might usefully collaborate to provide:

  • guidelines for appropriate integrated coastal management planning and integrated implementation;
  • methodological and technical support systems; and,
  • performance assessments and ongoing improvement in the quality of advice and technical support.

A strategy for a Regional Climate Change Convention

Not all Pacific island countries and territories are parties to the UNFCCC, either directly or indirectly. This may well inhibit a comprehensive regional assessment of, and response to, the problems raised by a possible change in climate. For example, some territories may not have the capacity to participate in a regional assessment of the impacts of climate change and accelerated sea-level rise even though their countries as a whole have substantial involvement at the international level.

Despite its major physical role in influencing global changes in the atmosphere and oceans, changes and responses in the Pacific Basin are not presented in great detail in assessments such as those conducted by the IPCC. This is understandable when one considers the data and population paucity of the region. But the situation is of little comfort to individuals, communities and countries in the Pacific that are forced to take the general findings of such assessments and extrapolate them to the region and to specific countries or territories.

A thorough understanding of the response of Pacific atmospheric and oceanic systems to systematic changes in atmospheric composition is critical to meaningful policy development, planning and implementation of responses. As at the global level, such understanding might be hastened should there be agreement on a parallel regional convention which includes provisions that focus on coordinated scientific assessments of climate change for the Pacific region.

Similarly, current assessments of impacts and identification of appropriate response strategies are equally broad, and hence of limited value in specific contexts. Despite the best efforts related to current regional and country assessments, the absence of regionally specific climate change scenarios makes such work somewhat academic and of decreased utility.

Finally, a regional convention might be used to give more authority to the collective of Pacific island countries and territories during international negotiations related to climate change. Such an outcome would build, and contribute further, to the success of SPREP and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in international negotiations related to climate change.

For the above reasons, a regional convention based on the principles of the UNFCCC might be worthy of consideration. It could formalize a process for assessments and reporting by all parties, it could define the supportive relationship between developed countries in the region or with those which have territories in the region, and it could give legal standing to the collective position taken by parties to the regional convention.

An additional commitment to those contained in the UNFCCC might well be agreement to develop and support a Regional Climate Analysis and Prediction Centre, as suggested above.

There are disadvantages associated with a regional climate change convention. These include the costs of negotiating the agreement, the possibility of taking attention away from the UNFCCC, the ability of a regional convention to have tangible influences on the causes of climate change and the administrative burden imposed by the need for a secretariat. Clearly there needs to be a comparative analysis of the benefits and costs of a climate change convention.


In keeping with international understanding and priorities, Pacific island countries are committed, individually and collectively, to developing sustainably. Thus the intimate linkages between economic development, environmental, cultural and resource conservation and social progress are recognized. Development must involve achieving an equitable balance between the foregoing goals, rather than seeing them as distinct or differing in priority. For these reasons environmental management cannot be, and typically is not, considered in isolation.


Identifying and responding to the implications of climate change and sea-level rise requires improved regional coordination and integration of national and local concerns, needs and capacities. This suggests an acceleration of recent initiatives to heighten the influence of small island developing states in negotiations of international agreements and a strengthening of national level capacity. It also implies a balance between top-down and bottom-up policy formulation and implementation of response strategies.

Importantly, in addition to the coordination roles of regional and international organizations, local people should be mobilized to regard climate change and its consequences as their problem. They must assume a role in deciding upon and implementing remedies. This approach requires participation of non- governmental organizations, especially religious and village organizations.

There is also a need for increased awareness at the political level, and at the upper levels of the religious and social hierarchies. Such an awareness should be built on a firm foundation of understanding, resulting from additional scientific data and other information being made available in a way which is commensurate with requirements at both national and regional levels.

Appreciation of the potential scale of the climate threat is critical. The spatial and temporal scales of climate change and sea-level rise, and the processes involved, are unfamiliar to all but a minority of well-educated Pacific islanders. There is also the "competition" with more immediate problems—perhaps changes occurring over decades or perhaps centuries can be worried about in the future—which can induce a blindness to long-term problems.

Underlying attitudes must be addressed. Change may be considered of less practical concern to those living in a naturally highly dynamic (variable) environment which leads to a feeling of powerlessness to modify nature. Moreover, there is a prevalent attitude that the ability to cope with the devastating effects of cyclones and other hazards is evidence of an aptitude to handle any future environmental threats. While this might have been the case in the past, many of today's natural systems have been degraded by human activity and are therefore more vulnerable to stress, be it natural or human-induced. And changes in construction materials, methods and styles have all reduced the ability to make rapid and locally-sourced repairs to homes and other buildings.

Over and above these personal attitudes is the perception that global warming and rising sea levels may bring tangible benefits to the Pacific. For this reason, some argue that the changes should not be impeded—rather, the approach should be one of adapting to the detrimental consequences and maximizing any benefits. The latter include the increased productivity of tropical food crops being grown in areas where the climate is distinctively subtropical and improved navigation due to increased water depth over hazards to shipping. As noted by the IPCC, however, the potential negative impacts are likely to far outweigh any benefits.

Vulnerability is in some instances partially offset by the intrinsic resilience of many natural systems. But this in turn is under threat, from increasing human pressures and from the instabilities likely under a changed climate.

Many institutions and organizations— national, regional and international—are addressing the policy, planning and management issues that arise during consideration of the implications of climate change and accelerated sea-level rise. But their efforts are hampered by limited capacities, nationally and regionally, to identify, evaluate and implement appropriate response options.

Despite these shortcomings, and because of the seriousness and urgency of the problem, a number of appropriate policy responses may be identified. The most important and urgent is to address the capacity constraints. Within the framework provided by these policies a number of more detailed response strategies have been proposed. They all provide support at the regional level for responses that must ultimately be developed and implemented at the local and national levels.

Further information

John E Hay, School of Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand. Fax: 64-9-3737042. Email: je.hay@auckland.ac.nz.