The effects of climate change will be challenging for Pacific security and the legacy of Pacific peoples, much worse even than the Pacific War or any military invasion.
National and human security in the Pacific is under serious real threat, the future not so bright, and delays in action only mean greater vulnerability, given the IPCC’s revised and even dire predictions of the forecast of climate change’s impact on the region.
Pacific leaders are being urged to take action on climate change and its effects, as the Pacific Islands Forum is under way in Palau Islands.
Several times now Pacific leaders have asserted that climate change is not a philosophical argument, but a real threat to Pacific island countries and peoples.
Constraining the perception to ‘climate change’ and not to extended it to the broader ‘environmental change’ (which would include, for example, depletion of groundwater and deforestation), also permeates greater problems of shortsighted strategies.
The strategy for the more powerful and industrialised countries has been to bury the ‘responsibility’ in the details, especially on who is responsible for the emissions.
However, every year of delayed readiness towards climate change equals lives and millions in emergency recovery, let alone several millions more in lost business and development.
Climate change is about state existence, a worse scenario than if a country is invaded or occupied in war.
Tropical Cyclone Ian which recently hit the Ha’apai group, may be an indicator of the effects of the increasingly extreme climate to come. It sliced off about 15% of Tonga’s mediocre annual $400 m GDP. The cyclone cost about $90m in damages, and more than hundred millions more in lost business, and one human life. Ha’apai was immediately declared a state of emergency, and the military moved in and controlled the region.
Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu says it will be beyond next year before the rehabilitation of Ha‘apai will have an effect in returning the island close to pre-cyclone operational conditions. Delayed development due to stunted education programs etc, will cost the islands, and Tonga, even more for years to come.
This is based on the assumption that there wouldn’t be another cyclone in the interim, even though the growing irregularities in environmental phenomenon are increasingly complex, and much more potent.
Given the short but extreme devastation wreaked by Hurricane Ian on the Ha’apai Islands, there is speculation that if the anomaly hit Tongatapu, the administrative and economic hub of the Kingdom, the whole country would have to immediately declared a State of Emergency (even Martial Law), as connections with the islands could have be disrupted, and industries and lives destroyed.
It would be quite unfortunate for Tonga, and other Pacific countries, to work towards consolidating democracy at a time when climate change stimulates military rule.
Further, the disruptions may challenge Tongan sovereignty, and that of other Pacific states, as if there is climate-induced destabilisation, other powers may wish to use it as a justification to intervene militarily under the guise of ‘peacekeeping’. It is worth bearing in mind that Australia is likely to suffer greatly as it dries up and Australian farmers are likely to be looking to the Pacific to find new lands to farm.
There is also the issue of a nation’s potential disappearance under the waves. That could set off ripples in the international system due to lapses and assumptions in international law.
One such Pacific country, the Republic of Kiribati, has made moves against total subjugation by the waves, by buying land in Fiji. Water shortages is becoming a reality in some islands, like Tuvalu, are threatening the survival of the people there and resulting in a state of emergency on those islands.
Tonga’s Ministry of Environment and Climate has just recently recruited professionals to help integrate the climate change policies to other national institutions, especially government policy and decision-making. However, unless those experts are also aware of the unique relationship between Tongans and their land and water rights, the ‘solutions’ may cause more problems of their own.
It is worth noting that while Tonga has large vulnerabilities to climate change, especially along the coasts and in cases of extreme events like cyclones, many of the impacts that are so detrimental in places like Tuvalu, such as water shortages, can be managed in Tonga through things like rainwater harvesting.
Much of Tonga is blessed with water, higher elevation and good soil. If Tongan lands stay in production providing food for the local population (and aren’t sold off to large agri-business producing monocrops for export) Tonga should be assured food security — something many other in the region will struggle to provide. Weathering many of the effects of climate change in Tonga will primarily be a matter of good management, and building on existing strengths.
The ‘moralised’ nature of the debate on Pacific Islands security against the effects of climate change has been the greatest dead weight to any advance in the discussion.
Even the politics of the science is denying meaningful action towards greater security against the effects of human-generated changes to the effects of climate change.
Meanwhile, most of the Pacific Islands are already mis-branded as unstable and a danger from themselves and their people, and limited considerations that the greatest danger is from environmental change.
Politicians seeking to profit in political capital from using climate change to advance other unrelated agenda, shall be carefully condemned.