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The Fate of the Real Pacific or ‘How I Learned to Start Worrying About Global Warming’ [ 2006.12.04 ]

If you look towards a scenic view what stands out more, a mountain or a tree growing upon its slope? What makes a greater impression, the shrimp or the whale that eats it? The point is that something larger is generally considered more important than something of lesser size purely because of its overbearing physical dominance. Given this notion is, China of greater worth to the region than Tonga? Is the United States more valuable to us relatively speaking than Nauru, Kiribati, or Tuvalu? Hopefully to most Asia-Pacific citizens the answer is a resounding ‘No!’ but unfortunately inside the parliaments and congresses across the region’s larger, stronger, and ultimately richer nations the island states of the South Pacific rarely if ever raise a murmur with regard to their well-being or future success. When regional heads of government get together to smile for the cameras under the guise of an APEC summit they no doubt use the term Asia-Pacific with the intent of referring to every nation bordering and within the realms of the Pacific Ocean. In reality they are really only concerned with those economically successful nations like Japan and the U.S., and those aspiring to achieve their status like Vietnam and Mexico, and are barely interested in acknowledging the existence of Polynesia and its peoples. This is hardly fair or appropriate. Just because these geographically small nations cannot possibly develop an economy to the level whereby the ‘big boys’, global companies and foreign governments, can make a large and fast profit they will be forever excluded and considered irrelevant to the machinations of the Asia-Pacific Economic Community. Surely for the average Pacific Island family being ‘politically dead’ to APEC is of no concern whatsoever. As long as the sun keeps shining, the kava grows thick and fast, and the fish keep biting, all is well in their respective literal paradises. Or is it?

Everyone knows of the many islands that dot the horizon of the South Pacific Ocean, but few of us have ever been there. They are by all accounts an amazing set of tropical landscapes, bathed in sunlight and hugged by beautiful blue seas. For any one lucky enough to meet an indigenous inhabitant from one of these nations they will be blessed to find out how warm, friendly, and charming the people of the region are. From time to time one or other of the island states may appear in the international headlines for all the wrong reasons, centred on the typical teething problems faced by fledgling democratic governments at loggerheads with ageing monarchies. Other reports suggest low-key corruption is rife in local administrations, yet ultimately the citizens of these atolls and archipelagos live carefree in harmony with nature and each other. Judging by the physicality of their homelands one could not fault their ancestors for choosing to reside in such a location, but it may be this very choice that leads ultimately to these islanders’ downfall.

In the modern age of industry many great externalities have reared their ugly head. Be it acid rain, river basin pollution and degradation, water shortages, or even dust storms, some nation will inevitably impact upon another through its industrious endeavours. As bad as these are there is one to surpass them all, and one that could affect every living species on the planet, Climate Change. Climate Change is the most recent term invented by politicians and their ‘spin doctors’ to refer to what has long been described as global warming or the green house effect. In short a heating up of planet Earth to temperatures that we humans have never previously encountered. Because the effects of climate change are somewhat gradual, as in they are not being felt immediately, most global citizens and their respective governments are failing to grasp the enormity and seriousness of the problems ahead. The other point that is terribly being neglected is the realisation that the economic cost to prevent further warming will be vastly less than the eventual cost to societies if no action is taken now. Prevention is better than cure as the old saying goes, and yet still factories throughout the Asia-Pacific spew out ridiculously high levels of greenhouse related pollutants. Maybe Australia, the U.S., Japan, and even the China of the future will be rich enough to deal with their industrial misgivings. Maybe the governments of these countries will be able to compensate their own citizens because they will have enough capital in reserve to offset the troubles their people will undoubtedly face, but what of the people who are not one of their own? Will the more developed nations be forthcoming in aiding those relatively poorer global citizens who are equally affected by this great global externality?

Whilst the various island nations across the Pacific have many things in common perhaps the most obvious is the ocean itself, the sea that is both the islanders’ friend and foe. When in a good mood Mother Nature provides seafood in abundance and creates rainfall for the tropical lands to flourish, however when angry she can whip up terrible cyclones (hurricanes) and tsunamis to send fear into the hearts of the people. Whatever the weather the Earth that we live on is becoming increasingly affected by human actions and ironically it is least of all the island peoples fault. Factory-type industry is practically non-existent across the majority of the archipelagos so it is through the industrial output of other countries that the South Pacific must suffer. The equation is simple: Increased global temperature plus polar icecap melting equals sea level rise. Scientists have a pretty good clue as to how much the sea could rise by looking at how it has already done so. For example it is thought that over the course of the last century the sea rose around 15 centimetres. That may not be too dramatic but some projections suggest that by the year 2100 we could expect around a whole metre of sea level rising. For people tucked up in bed in Beijing or driving across the Great Plains of America this may seem relatively acceptable, but when your homeland is a small island like Kiribati where one metre is about the average height above sea level of the ground you walk on then the situation looks rather dire. Whilst the one metre projection is the worst-case scenario thought possible the precautionary principle tells us to expect the most worrying prediction and be able to deal with it. In terms of ‘dealing with it’ the atolls have very few options and in the most dramatic scenario gradual abandonment may be the only choice. Just where these innocent environmental victims are supposed to start their new lives is anyone’s guess. Nations like Australia and New Zealand are already home to many expatriate Pacific Islanders but should they be reasonably expected to absorb an estimated 8.6 million combined Pacific Island peoples. It almost sounds too far fetched to be believed but it could really be that millions of people are displaced because of this ever-looming global catastrophe.

Even if the majority of Polynesians are thankfully not forced from their homelands by Mother Nature’s ire, there are still further implications that they will have to battle. The waters surrounding the pockets of land that dot the ocean are largely coral ecosystems that are very sensitive to temperature change. The coral is to the aquatic life what the trees are to the rainforests, the absolute fundamental building blocks to the whole ecology of the area. If the coral dies the fish populations essentially dwindle and die with it, and one of the things that coral just cannot recover from is sharp rises in sea temperature. In fact the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that if current greenhouse pollution levels continue, and with sea temperature rising, as a little as 5% of Australia’s 2300 km long Great Barrier Reef will remain intact by the year 2050. For island nations that depend on their own reefs for their survival in the fishing and tourism trades this would be the ultimate disaster. Forget about saving the Panda or looking after the Bald Eagle, this single phenomenon of coral bleaching would all but destroy the livelihoods of the vast majority of Pacific Island peoples. As usual with these ‘near-future’ dire predictions no one is really following up on the facts. Perhaps the scientists are wrong. Maybe the climate will level out and coral will continue to survive across the atolls. On the other hand the likelihood is that the men and women who spend their lives studying these things have got their predications fairly close to the mark. Even if the worst-case scenarios do not eventuate there are clearly troubled times ahead for the islanders with regard to their local ecosystems. Too much heat means too much sea level and not enough coral, and that spells human disaster for these folk, our Asia-Pacific brothers and sisters.

So how long is APEC, with all its collective wealth, going to essentially ignore the plight of these innocent global citizens? No doubt the relevant bureaucrats of the region’s super powers say the right things to the TV cameras and make positive sounding comments to journalists when asked, if they ever are, what their policy is on the South Pacific. The truth is the world as a whole is already a long way down the path of destruction through climate change and really the Pacific Island nations need APEC to take them under their wing and promise that they will do everything realistically possible to abate the trauma these communities may soon be forced to face. If this means financial compensation so be it. The collective coffers of APEC’s richer countries will have to be opened and economic assistance will simply have to be provided. If the worst comes to worst and migration is forced upon the Polynesians as environmental refugees then there needs to be allowances and plans in place to aid in the difficult transition of these people to new home countries. Some APEC members such as Japan and the US are quite stringent with their immigration laws but there will be no room for xenophobia if the time should come when millions of Pacific Islanders need a new secure and sustainable place to inhabit. Ideally enough can be done now through good global governance in order to abate carbon emissions so that these issues never eventuate. Unfortunately governments are notoriously inefficient in their abilities to recognise the need for quick solutions to problems that they often perceive as of lesser than actual importance. Whilst the whole world is set to suffer from global warming the Islands of the South Pacific are really in the firing line and what is more they sadly have been amongst the least contributors to the problem. Many nations have gained strong economies at the expense of the world’s temperature but the Pacific Islands never really have done and yet they are set to suffer the resultant problems brought about by others. Can these people speak loudly enough to get the developed and developing world to hear them? And even if they get to a stage where they can speak out effectively will anyone actually listen? After all, why should any one care about a ‘couple of islands in the sun’ that have no mineral resources, no international business or financial headquarters, and no factories churning out global brand consumer products? If you have ever caught the Tokyo subway at rush hour, or been driven in a taxi from Beijing airport to your Hotel, you may want to pause for a moment and think about another world not so far away where the only thing you have to worry about is whether or not your homeland actually has a real, physical, geological and ecological future. Maybe that crowded subway carriage wont feel so uncomfortable after all.

Bernard Laidlaw

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