Return to Tiempo index

Next article

Climate change and small island states

John Hay discusses the linkages between science-driven policy and policy-driven science in reference to small island states.

The author is Director of Professional Training at the International Global Change Institute, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. He is also an Honorary Research Professor in the School of Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Coordinator of UNEP's Network for Environmental Training at Tertiary Level in Asia and the Pacific.

Two themes that relate to the linkages between science and policy in the context of climate change and its consequences for small island developing states are developed in this article. These themes are science-driven policy, and policy-driven science. While these overlap, there are also significant differences, in terms of both domestic and international policy making.

What is the scientific basis of concern for action on the climate issue? We are certain that human activities result in increased emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, with a consequent increase in their atmospheric concentrations and thence enhanced radiative forcing on the atmosphere. There is very high certainty that such changes lead to global warming and global sea-level rise.

Characterizations of future climate changes, and their consequences, for the small islands regions of the world have considerably less certainty. This is due, in part, to the inability of global climate models to resolve the spatial patterns consistent with the individual and combined groupings of small islands. Nevertheless, the available evidence suggests that by the end of this century there will be significant changes in the mean climate and increases in sea level, resulting in substantial impacts.

The results of four global climate models, supported by the more intensive studies using a nested climate model for the Pacific islands, show that by the end of the century mean temperatures for the small islands regions may increase by around 3 degrees Celsius, except for the Mediterranean where the increase is likely to be over 4 degrees Celsius.

With respect to sea level, observed trends show marked differences between small islands regions as well as substantial deviations from historic global trends. Geological processes, leading to uplift and subsidence of the land, also complicate estimates of future sea-level rise at the local level. The current ‘best estimate’ of global sea-level rise is an increase of about 50 cm by 2100. The uncertainty in this estimate still implies an increase of 1.5 to 3.5 times over the historic rate.

But the impacts of these slow trends in mean conditions are likely to be small and of less consequence than the after-effects of more frequent extreme weather and climate events. This is especially the case for the Pacific islands region, given the large interannual variability in conditions induced by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon.

It is now considered likely that global warming will lead to some increase in maximum tropical cyclone wind speeds and lower central pressures, leading to more damaging storm surges. Sea-level rise and storm surge effects are additive. Thus, the combined effects of increases in cyclone intensities and sea-level rise are one of the major threats to the future well-being of small island countries.

Model-based studies suggest that by 2080 the number of people flooded by these ‘super storm surges’ in any typical year will be more than five times higher than present. The islands of the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific Oceans face the largest relative increase in flood risk, with the number of people at risk being some 200 times higher than in most other parts of the world.

There is, however, no substantive evidence that tropical cyclone numbers will change in a warmer world; nor is a change in regions of their formation indicated. But it is possible that changes in the latter may occur in response to long-term changes in ENSO. Spatial patterns of occurrence are unlikely to undergo major changes, except that tropical cyclones may track further polewards.

Confidence in the projections of future climate is particularly low when it comes to the changing frequency of extreme events. This uncertainty, along with the large natural interannual variability, makes it extremely difficult to attribute any observed event to human interference in the climate system.

When considering impacts, the interactions, feedbacks and hence the indirect effects of global warming are likely to be of great consequence for small island countries, given the strong linkages between all natural and human systems in small island countries.

One example relates to the effects of coral bleaching (see Tiempo Issue 35) on the social and economic impacts at community and national levels, including reduced supplies of seafood placing greater pressure on terrestrial food sources and the possibility of detrimental changes in land-use and land-cover.

Findings regarding the potential impact of global warming and sea-level rise, such as those summarized above, must be used to drive national policy development as well as negotiations at the international level.

National inventories recently completed by many small island countries provide quantified, conclusive evidence that, either on both a collective or on a per capita basis, the inhabitants of small island states are minor contributors to elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. But this does not mean that the small island states can, or should, sit back and rest on the reputation of being minor emitters of greenhouse gases.

Small island states have many good reasons for taking concerted action now that they have more substantive information on which to base their actions.

Actions may be taken to increase the efficiency of existing energy supply systems and to consider opportunities for substituting less costly fuels. Information contained in the inventories will help determine the cost effectiveness of the various options and, in turn, guide decision making related to investment and other initiatives. Such rationally-based decisions and actions will certainly help countries to achieve sustainable development.

Political factors may also influence the decision to reduce emissions. Any meaningful efforts by minor emitters to reduce emissions would provide a strong message and give impetus for other countries to take domestic action to reduce their overall emissions. The atmosphere is part of the global commons. Thus, a country may well decide to act as a good global citizen and reduce its emissions, no matter how small the inventory data show those emissions to be.

As noted previously, for small island countries a variety of factors make it extremely difficult to anticipate the specific national and local impacts of climate change. These include the low resolution of, and confidence in, model-based projections and the sensitivity, complex and hence interactive nature of the natural and human systems. Integrated as opposed to sector-based assessments and responses are essential under such circumstances.

Moreover, especially for small island countries, policy development, planning and implementation should be driven as much by the need to accelerate sustainable development as by the need to adapt to climate change – many adaptation responses will thus be based on ‘no regrets’ policies.

Critical to meeting the need for adaptation are both the transfer and assimilation of environmentally-sound technologies, and enhancing the use of traditional knowledge and practices. Environmental technology assessment is of growing importance in small island countries.

Policy implications of the foregoing findings are now examined from the perspectives of international negotiations and national development planning.

At the international level, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change seeks to prevent “dangerous interference with the climate system.” But to date there has been no success in quantifying the specific threshold concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that would limit the integrated and critical impacts of climate change to a level that avoids “dangerous interference.” This is due, in part, to the current inability to anticipate the integrated impacts of climate change at national and community levels in small island countries. Thus, further, targeted and integrated vulnerability research and assessments are required, not only to guide national development planning but also to inform international negotiators.

There is also a need to arrest and reverse the current trend whereby the responsibility of Annex 1 countries to reduce their emissions and enhance sinks is, in both cases, being transferred to non-Annex 1 Parties.

For example, reliance on the enhancement of sinks through management of tropical ecosystems, as proposed by some Annex I Parties, is risky. The present uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the terrestrial biosphere may diminish over time, and increases in terrestrial carbon stocks may bring with it an increased risk of subsequent release of the carbon to the atmosphere.

One study of risk reduction through implementation of the Kyoto Protocol has shown that the risk of a 50 cm sea-level rise, or an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide of 560 ppm (associated with a possible reduction of calcification rates in reef communities), would be reduced by less than 10 per cent. Achievement of these danger thresholds would be delayed by less than a decade.

It is clear that the targets in the Kyoto Protocol are incapable of arresting climate change. All Parties to the Convention must take every reasonable step to reduce the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, rather than abdicating responsibility to developing countries.

In national development planning, climate change is only one of many impediments to achievement of environmentally-sound and sustainable development – many others are related to high population growth rates and densities, and the migration of people in-country. As with all other sources of pressure on natural and human systems, climate change must be mainstreamed in national development planning.

Five conclusions are derived from the preceding review of science-driven policy and policy-drive science:

  • The relatively well characterized consequences of global warming may not pose the greatest climate-related threat to small island countries – the more localized and hence less well understood extreme events, and the indirect effects of changes in mean conditions, are likely to be of far greater significance.
  • International policy positions and negotiating strategies under the Convention are placing a growing emphasis on measures implemented by developing countries (such as reduced emissions and enhanced sinks), rather than placing the onus on the main contributors to global warming. This is unjustifiable, on both scientific and moral grounds.
  • There is insufficient substantive information on which to base analysis of the sufficiency of response measures – this is due, in part, to the current inability to anticipate the integrated impacts of climate change at national and community levels in small island countries.
  • Integration is key to success in addressing climate change. At the national level, addressing climate change is only one of many policy responses required to achieve environmentally-sound and sustainable development. Integrated assessments and the mainstreaming of climate policies are critical. Integration at the international level can, amongst other benefits, result in synergies from compliance with the various environmental legal agreements.
  • Finally, there is a need to strengthen still further the capacity of small island developing states to address the preceding challenges, with sustainable outcomes.

We already have several success stories, including the Caribbean Programme for Adaptation to Climate Change and the Pacific Island Climate Change Assistance Programme (PICCAP), along with the support of such organizations and initiatives as the Global Environment Facility, its partner organizations, namely the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Division of Sustainable Development, the National Communications Support Programme and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

PICCAP provides a notable example of the sustainability of efforts related to human resources development. The vast majority of the Pacific islands’ participants in both vulnerability and adaptation and greenhouse gas inventory training courses conducted by PICCAP remain employed by their governments in areas where their expertise can be applied in ways that lead to more effective responses to climate change.

Further information

John Hay, International Global Change Institute, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand. Fax: +64-7-8384289. Email: j.hay@waikato.ac.nz. Web: www.waikato.ac.nz/igci/.

On the Web

On the Web: Small Island States lists selected links.


This paper was presented at the Second Alliance of Small Island States Workshop on Climate Change Negotiations, Management and Strategy, held July 26th to August 4th 2000 in Apia, Samoa.

Editorial | Return to Tiempo index | Next article