A Sword of Damocles?

John Hay uses a classical legend to underline his argument that global warming is posing a very real threat to Pacific Island nations.

The author is Professor, and Director of Professional Training, with the International Global Change Institute, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.

Damocles was a member of the court of Dionysius II, who ruled Syracuse, Sicily, in the 3rd century BC. Damocles was continually envious of the happiness and good fortune of Dionysius. Frustrated by this attitude, and wishing to teach Damocles a lesson, Dionysius invited Damocles to a feast. Enjoyment of the feast was spoilt for Damocles though, because Dionysius had ordered that a sword, suspended by a single hair, be dangled over his head. The sword was intended to represent the constant danger that went with the wealth and material happiness of Dionysius.

The Sword of Damocles

Richard Westall, Oil on canvas, 1812

The imaginative imagery first used by Dionysius has transcended time, with ‘the Sword of Damocles’ now being a byword for the threat of danger or of a dreaded tragedy that may strike at any moment.

Is there a Sword of Damocles hanging over the small island countries of the Pacific as a consequence of global warming? This article argues “yes.” Moreover, we should all be concerned, for small island countries are a barometer for the rest of the world.

Extreme events and variability likely to dominate over long-term change

Of the major disasters experienced in the Pacific Islands region during the 1990s, the vast majority had atmospheric origins, with tropical cyclones being the dominant cause. Only one drought was reported. Unlike other extreme events, droughts tend to occur without fanfare, being insidious and pervasive in nature and are underreported in Pacific disaster statistics.

Disasters incur significant financial as well as non-monetary costs for the region. For the ten events for which data are available, total financial losses incurred in the 1990s exceeded US$1.4 billion. Consistent with trends observed internationally, disaster costs are almost certainly increasing in the Pacific Islands region.

Monetary and other losses are exacerbated through the cumulative effects of disasters. Cyclones Ofa and Val, which hit Samoa in 1990-91, caused losses of US$440 million. This is in excess of the country’s gross domestic product for the two years combined. Between 1992 and 1998, Fiji experienced four cyclones, two droughts and severe flooding. Last century, Tokelau experienced five major cyclones – in 1914, 1966, 1987, 1990 and 1991 – with the time between successive events decreasing markedly.

Despite the many uncertainties as to the nature and consequences of global warming, experts are confident that the climate of the Pacific Islands region will continue to be dominated by the interannual variability associated with ENSO (the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon). This variability manifests in extreme events such as tropical cyclones, floods and drought and through persistent atmospheric circulation features such as the trade winds and convergence zones.

In addition, though, due to the enhanced greenhouse effect, the region will almost certainly warm. This warming will likely be between 0.6 and 3.5oC in this century, a rate of warming which is much larger than the observed changes during the past century and very likely without precedent during at least the past 10,000 years. The anticipated temperature increase can be compared to the difference, for the region, of around 3 to 4oC between the middle of the last Ice Age and the present day.

During this 21st century, the climate may also become more El Niño-like, with central and eastern equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures projected to warm more than the western equatorial Pacific, with a corresponding mean eastward shift of precipitation. Furthermore, during future ENSO events, anomalously wet areas could become even wetter, and unusually dry areas become even drier. While there is no evidence that tropical cyclone numbers will change with global warming, a general increase in tropical cyclone intensity such as lower central pressures, stronger winds and higher peak and mean precipitation intensities appears likely, as does an eastward extension in the area of formation.

Globally, rates of sea-level rise during the 20th century have been in the range of 1 to 2 mm/yr. Due to global warming, this rate is expected to increase to between 1 and 7 mm/yr, with a central estimate of 4 mm/yr. While local sea levels change in response to many factors, including local uplift or sinking of the Earth’s crust as well as variations in air pressure and wind velocity, it is expected that even those areas in the Pacific currently experiencing a relative fall in sea level will, by the end of this century, experience a rising relative sea level. However, in the coming decades, interannual variations in sea level associated with ENSO, and storm surges associated with tropical cyclones, are likely to be of greater significance than sea-level rise.

Anticipated costs of extreme events dominate those of climate change

The most comprehensive integrated assessment of the possible impacts of global warming for Pacific Island Countries was recently undertaken by the World Bank. Case studies involving Viti Levu in Fiji (representing a high island) and Tarawa atoll in Kiribati (representing a low island) were undertaken with the assistance of many national, regional and international partners. The analysis used an integrated impact assessment model, the Pacific Climate Change Impacts Model (PACCLIM), developed for the region by the International Global Change Institute (IGCI) at the University of Waikato in New Zealand as a contribution to the Pacific Islands Climate Change Assistance Programme (PICCAP).

The Pacific Climate Change Impacts Model links several sectoral impact models, population projections and baseline data such as historical climate records. Results indicated that, among the most substantial impacts of global warming, losses of coastal land and infrastructure resulting from a combination of inundation, storm surges and shoreline erosion would predominate. Global warming could also be associated with more intense cyclones and droughts, the failure of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, losses of coral reefs and the spread of malaria and dengue fever.

Estimated annual economic impact of climate change for the year 2050 in millions of 1998 US$.


Average Annual Damage (millions of US$)

Likely Cost of an Extreme Event (millions of US$)

Extreme Event


Viti Levu


Viti Levu



Impact on Coastal Resources


Loss of coastal land and infrastructure to erosion




Loss of coastal land and infrastructure to inundation and storm surge





Storm surge

Loss of coral reefs and related services




Impact on Water Resources


Increase in cyclone severity




Increase in ENSO-related droughts





Replacement of potable water supply due to change in rainfall, sea-level rise and inundation







Impact on Agriculture


Loss of sugarcane, yams, taro and cassava due to temperature or rainfall changes and ENSO










Impact on Public Health


Increased incidence of dengue fever




Large epidemic

Increased incidence of diarrhoea




Total Estimated Damages






+ Likely to have economic costs, but impact not quantified
— Not available

The study expressed the impacts in monetary terms, in this case in 1998 US$ equivalents. This, thereby, provided an estimate of the overall cost of the impacts in the absence of any efforts to offset them. See table on page 26.

A high island such as Viti Levu in Fiji could experience average annual economic losses of US$23 to 52 million by 2050 which is equivalent to two to four per cent of Fiji’s Gross Domestic Product. A low group of islands, such as Tarawa atoll in Kiribati, could face average annual damages of US$8 to 16 million by 2050, as compared to a current Gross Domestic Product of US$47 million.

These indicative costs could be considerably higher in individual years when extreme events such as cyclones, droughts or significant storm surges occur. These estimated costs are also outlined in the accompanying table. In Viti Levu, for example, a cyclone might cause damages of about US$40 million, while a severe drought could cause costs of more than US$70 million. In years of strong storm surge, around half of South Tarawa could be inundated, with capital losses as high as US$430 million.

Integrating disaster risk management and adaptation to climate variability and change

Until recently, failure to grasp the real, pervasive costs of disasters made it difficult to convince most policy and decision makers to divert scarce resources from any part of the national, enterprise or community budgets in order to support disaster reduction programmes. On top of this, uncertainties in climate impact estimates, and even more so in the likely success of adaptive responses, were simply too large for adaptation to be incorporated into national development planning in a meaningful way.

Recent studies, though, have clarified our understanding by highlighting the significant costs of climate related events, variability and trends, and by revealing how these costs are increasing with time, a trend that is highly likely to continue into the future. While the range given for anticipated costs is typically still large, the implications are nonetheless clear. That is, that even in the near future climate variability and change (including extreme events) are likely to impose major incremental social, environmental and economic costs on Pacific Island Countries. Importantly, such costs are inherently distributed inequitably, preferentially affecting the poor and other vulnerable groups.

Both disasters and climate variability are significant impediments to successful economic development in that they represent risks to the regional, national and local economies. Pacific countries are already experiencing the manifestations of these risks, in the form of disasters, but also via climate variability. Risks associated with the full spectrum of hazards, from extreme events to the consequences of long-term climate change, should be managed in a holistic manner as an integral part of national development planning, as portrayed ibelow.

Many disaster and climate change response strategies are the same as those which contribute in a positive manner to sustainable development, to sound environmental management and to wise resource use. It is clear, therefore, that risk reduction should involve, preferentially, ‘no regrets’ policies and measures. These are appropriate responses to climatic variability and other present-day and emerging stresses on social, cultural, economic and environmental systems. Such appropriate responses mean that ‘no regrets’ strategies, plans and actions are beneficial even in the absence of climate change.

Disaster risk management and adaptation should be integral components of any national risk management strategy and, in turn, of the national development planning process. Most countries already have policies and plans to manage financial risks, human health risks, biosecurity risks, agricultural risks, risks in the transport sector and energy supply risks. Disasters and climate change and variability should be included and addressed in the same portfolio of national risks. Such an approach would help strengthen decision making processes by requiring that specific programmes and projects include strategies and measures to manage risks associated with extreme events and with climate change and variability.

Climate change adaptation through integrated risk reduction

Climate Change Adaptation through Integrated Risk Reduction (CCAIRR, pronounced care) is a recently launched initiative, driven by the International Global Change Institute in New Zealand. CCAIRR builds on the extensive experience and broad expertise of the International Global Change Institute.

These areas of expertise include:

  • natural hazard assessment;
  • coastal hazard assessment for management and planning;
  • integrated assessments and modelling at a range of spatial and temporal scales;
  • environmental and health risk assessments;
  • environmental planning and governance evaluations;
  • building sustainable development capacity at community level; and,
  • identification and evaluation of adaptation options.

Under CCAIRR, this collective experience, and that of the International Global Change Institute’s national, regional and international partners, is being harnessed and focused in order to address the three priority needs identified and portrayed above.

Key elements of the conceptual understanding and resulting practical actions that facilitate an integrated, comprehensive approach to risk management.

The diagram above illustrates the key elements of the conceptual understanding and resulting practical actions that facilitate an integrated, comprehensive approach to risk management related to disasters and climate variability and change, including sea-level rise.

The key concept is the existence of a continuum of potential events that may all be classed as hazards. The continuum ranges from extreme events of short duration ( for example, a tropical cyclone) through events associated with variations in atmospheric and marine conditions (for example, an ENSO-induced drought) to events resulting from long-term changes (such as accelerated coastal erosion as a consequence of sea-level rise). These hazards originate in response to the mix of external pressures, such as rising temperatures, and internal pressures, such as a growing demand for food as a result of population increase, on both biophysical and socio-economic systems.

Regardless of magnitude, frequency or their duration, the potential significance of these hazards can be determined using a conventional risk assessment methodology, involving exposure assessment (risk analysis) and risk characterization (risk evaluation). If the resulting risk is deemed to require an intervention, it can be reduced through specific actions that are undertaken in concert with the mix of other risk reduction strategies that are a normal part of national development planning and operations. These include management of financial and human health risks.

© 2002 Lawrence Moore

The methodology, therefore, allows for an integrated risk-based approach to determining the need for actions to reduce the potential for, and impacts of, disasters and for adaptive measures that will lessen adverse consequences. The range of actions to reduce pressures includes not only adaptation and disaster reduction, but also mitigation through emission reduction strategies or activities that remove carbon from the atmosphere or store it elsewhere, such as in growing trees.


Even in the near future, climate variability and change, including extreme events, are likely to impose untenable social, environmental and economic costs on Pacific Island Countries. Any plausible climate change scenario will require Pacific Island Countries to implement adaptation measures due to the unparalleled and potentially devastating nature of the resulting impacts.

The Sword of Damocles is not, therefore, an extreme imagery to use to portray the very real threat that hangs suspended over the island countries of the Pacific. However, unlike Damocles, these island countries are hardly deserving of such treatment.

On average, individual Pacific islanders are responsible for producing approximately one quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions attributable to the average person world-wide. They are rightly described as the innocent victims of global warming.

Global warming will increase the significance of extreme events, and hence disaster risk. Even today, though, extreme events are a major impediment to sustainable development. Development planning must reflect both recurrent historical risks and new risks, including those associated with global warming, since effective risk management prevents precious resources being squandered on disaster recovery and rehabilitation.

An integrated approach, one that exploits the synergies to be gained from harmonizing responses to extreme events, to variability and to long-term change, will go a long way towards strengthening the thread on which the Pacific’s Sword of Damocles is suspended.

Further information
John Hay, International Global Change Institute, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand. Fax: +64-7-8585689. Email: j.hay@waikato.ac.nz. Web: www.waikato.ac.nz/igci/.

On the Web
On the Web: Small Island States lists relevant links.