Pacific Islands are holding the front line of climate change, but this is a global fight

A young boy kicking a ball through the ruins of their family home in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila after Cyclone Pam in 2015. Photo: Dave Hunt AFP

A young boy kicking a ball through the ruins of their family home in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila after Cyclone Pam in 2015. Photo: Dave Hunt AFP

We know how to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst climate change impacts for Pacific Island nations. But we must act now, and action must be worldwide.

This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report, bringing together seven years of research on the global state of climate change from hundreds of experts. With each line approved by 195 governments, there is no room for doubt in the report’s stark findings.

One of the main messages of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report is that climate change is progressively becoming more severe and intense and will likely continue to do so. And yet, there is also a message of hope – globally we have the means to address climate change right now. We need to take action urgently and at scale.

Here’s what we know

We know that all warming since 1850 is undeniably and wholly caused by human activities. Globally, we have already experienced warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Unsustainable energy use, land use, lifestyles, patterns of consumption and production, and the burning of fossil fuels are particularly responsible.

Even with this knowledge, emissions have continued to rise across all major sectors over the past decade. But contributions to this warming are by no means equal. Pacific Island countries and territories have much lower emissions per person than the global average, while being among the most vulnerable.

We know that Pacific Island nations are already experiencing some of the worst impacts of climate change.

Across the Pacific region, we have faced challenges of water and food security, impacts to health and wellbeing including from climate-induced displacement, and damages to homes and infrastructure from flooding, cyclones, storm damages, volcanic eruptions and extreme events.

The land and oceans have also changed, affecting ecosystem structure with species distribution shifting and changes in seasonal timings, as well as sea level rise. The report shows that large scale and rapid changes have been observed in the oceans, frozen areas, atmosphere and ecosystems across every region of the world.

Every region is expected to face increasing risks from climate hazards in the near term. However, it is often the most vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to the problem who are, and will continue to be, affected the most.

This unequal experience of cause and impact demands a consideration of climate justice. Pacific Island nations are calling on the countries most responsible to take the action needed to curb global warming.

Capping to 1.5 degrees is critical for Pacific Islands’ survival

It has been said many times, and will be said again, that keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius is not a preference for the Pacific, it is a necessity. The IPCC report predicts that we will likely exceed warming of 1.5 degrees in the early 2030s if we do not take rapid and genuine action now.

Pacific communities have long been on the front line of climate change. They live in places prone to floods with a higher incidence of climate-related diseases. Pacific people are living at the crossroads. There is an urgent need for scaled-up ambition and implementation to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

The IPCC has reported a ‘carbon budget’ – the amount of carbon we can emit before we are likely to exceed 1.5 degrees. The emissions generated from existing and planned fossil fuel projects alone will exceed this budget.

Underpinning our global commitment to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees was an understanding that this was the threshold to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The impacts beyond this level are far too long to list here, but of key importance to the Pacific is that beyond this warming we would lose a further 70 to 90 per cent of coral reefs, globally.

Is it too late to act?

The latest IPCC report, and its confronting findings might leave many asking if we have reached a point of no return. Absolutely not.

While it is true some climate impacts would continue even if we stopped any further warming from today, the IPCC makes clear that we can choose what our future looks like. As a global community we have sufficient knowledge, tools and capital available to address the challenges of climate change. Governments, as well as civil society and the private sector, will play a crucial role.

We know that halting global warming means we must reach global net zero carbon dioxide emissions; this requires a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use. We need to ensure funding is directed appropriately, and change the current trend of greater public and private finance for fossil fuels than for climate adaptation and mitigation.

This IPCC report strengthens the case for action. Even without adding in the value of other co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as reductions in air pollution and damage from extreme events, the global economic benefit of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius will exceed the costs of emission reductions. Rapid action on climate change is simply the economically sensible thing to do.

The IPCC report shows the importance of policies that are based on principles of equity and climate justice. These can help us achieve emission reduction and climate adaptation while also providing many benefits for human wellbeing, ecosystems and overall planetary health.

Acknowledging, listening to, and acting on traditional and local knowledge can also help us better respond to the challenges of climate change.

Not just an issue for the Pacific, but the world – including Australia

Climate change is not just an issue for Pacific Island nations. At the last round of UN Climate negotiations, COP27, the meeting rooms echoed with the words ‘What happened in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan’, referring to the devastating floods that caused immeasurable human suffering and loss.

Similarly, we heard countless stories from Pacific Island nations that are on the frontline of climate change now, including Tuvalu, which is the first nation to prepare for becoming a digital state in anticipation of future climate impacts. While Pacific Island nations are facing devastating climate impacts as we speak, the reality will become a global one if we do not act immediately.

There is a rapidly closing window to avoid the worst of climate change, but it is still open. Importantly, we have the means, knowledge and motivation to act in ways that also create many benefits for sustainable development. The choices and actions we take now will have global repercussions for decades, and even millennia, to come.

Professor Mark Howden, Mahealani Delaney and ‘Ofa Ma’asi-Kaisamy

This article was first published on ANU Reporter.

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