Climate change threatens human security in the Pacific Islands

06 Aug 2009

A coconut washed up on a beach in Vanuatu.  (Photo: Thomas Jensen/UNDP Pacific Centre)

Cairns – Climate change poses an existential threat to the Pacific Island countries and may further aggravate conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, a high-level panel warned today at the Pacific Island Forum in Cairns, Australia.

“We recognize climate change to be a critical development challenge with enormous implications for the entire range of development concerns: poverty, livelihoods, food security, conflict and social cohesion, to name a few,” said Ajay Chhibber, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, who is also Assistant Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and UNDP Director of the Asia and the Pacific Regional Bureau.  “At a time of global economic crisis, climate change has the potential to reverse hard-won development gains in the region, which could compromise our collective ability to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and plans for a prosperous, peaceful and secure region,” added Chhibber, who chaired the high-level climate change side event at the 40th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meeting, August 5-6.

Panelists called on countries to act immediately to address threatening climate change issues, stressing the importance that the Pacific Island countries develop adaptation intervention to “climate-proof” their development plans and policies.

Richard Towle, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Regional Representative for  Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific, told the panel that the legal and human rights implications of displacement driven by forces such as climate change and environmental degradation have yet to be seriously addressed – regionally and globally.

“However, it is clear that climate change – and the human security and development challenges it brings – adds to the scale and complexity of human movement and displacement in the region,” Towle said. “We need to act now if we are to find solutions for people whose homes, lands and livelihoods are, as we speak, being destroyed by rising sea levels and violent fluctuations in weather patterns in the region.”

A fisherman in Fiji.  (Photo: Thomas Jensen/UNDP Pacific Centre)

The Pacific is one of the most disaster-affected regions in the world, permanently threatened by a variety of natural hazards, many of which are likely to worsen as the planet’s temperature warms. Already, in Kiribati, a number of villagers had to move their houses to retreat from the rising sea. In other Pacific Island countries, relocating families may spark social conflict due to traditional land rights.  Moreover, several countries in the region may soon experience food security issues relating to coral bleaching – normally caused by temperature change – that threatens fish stocks.

For this reason, UNDP Pacific Centre is undertaking the initiative Interface between Climate Change, Disasters and Potential for Conflict in the Pacific: putting together a regional mechanism to prevent conflicts sparked by climate change. 

“The initiative is the recognition that climate change will impact conflict dynamics in the Pacific,” said Jean-Luc Stalon, senior regional adviser on Crisis Prevention and Recovery at UNDP’s Pacific Centre in Suva, Fiji. “Climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of disasters, which are causing displacement, livelihood insecurity and increasing instability. We need to focus on integrating climate change risks into conflict prevention efforts – before it is too late and too costly,” Stalon added. 

In partnership with other regional organizations, UNDP will map, identify and collect data about the effects that climate change and increasing disasters will have on conflict dynamics in the region. The Interface between Climate Change, Disasters and Potential for Conflict in the Pacific initiative also aims to build capacity of national and regional organizations to prevent and manage violent conflicts emerging from climate change. 

About the Pacific Islands Forum:

The Pacific Islands Forum comprises 16 independent and self-governing states.  The Forum is the region’s main political and economic policy organization, whose leaders meet annually to develop collective responses to regional priorities. www.forumsec.org.fj

Contact Information

UNDP Fiji: Reama Biumaiono, Tel: +679 3227704 reama.biumaiono@undp.org

UNDP Pacific Center: Shobhna Decloitre, Tel: +679 3300399  shobhna.decloitre@undp.org

UNIC Australia: Julia Dean, Mobile: + 612 412 102 128  julia.dean@unic.org

UNHCR Australia: Ben Farrell, Mobile: +61 407 971 686   farrellb@unhcr.org

UNDP New York: Carolina Azevedo, Tel: +1 212 906 6127 carolina.azevedo@undp.org