Pacific Islands youth on the frontlines of climate change need the world’s attention, says UNDP

Urgent appeal for action as Pacific Island youth confront escalating climate change threats, endangering their identities, mental health, and futures in a crisis that remains largely overlooked.

May 23, 2024

Rising sea levels pose an existential threat to the island nations, with the potential to consume entire countries, displace populations, and disrupt cultural norms. Projections for 2050 indicate that Pacific Island countries could face sea level rises from 25 cm to 58 cm, a devastating prospect.

UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji

New York, 23 May 2024. From existential threats linked to the potential disappearance of their homelands, to socioeconomic and mental health challenges, young Pacific Islanders are battling the immediate and enduring impacts of climate change. These issues are underscored in a new United Nations Development Programme policy paper titled A Turbulent Future: How Climate Change Impacts Young People in the Pacific," released ahead of the Small Island Developing States Conference (SIDS4) in Antigua. 


Young people, who represent up to 75% of total population in Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs), are expected to face more climate-related hardships in their lifetime compared to past generations.  


"The immediate and long-term impacts of climate change on young Pacific Islanders cannot be overlooked. Young people are grappling with existential threats to their homes, livelihoods, learning opportunities, and health. These concerns have had a detrimental impact on the emotional and psychological well-being of young people. However, youth are not only the face of this crisis; they are also the key to overcoming it," says Kanni Wignaraja, the Regional Director for UNDP Asia and the Pacific.  


Impacts on spatial, economic and cultural identities 

Rising sea levels pose an existential threat to the island nations, with the potential to consume entire countries, displace populations, and disrupt cultural norms. Projections for 2050 indicate that Pacific Island countries could face sea level rises from 25 cm to 58 cm, a devastating prospect, particularly for atoll nations where the population largely resides in coastal areas. For instance, in Kiribati, Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu, the entire population lives in areas just 5 meters above sea level. 


The paper underscores the toll on economic, spatial, and cultural identities. Remoteness, lack of scale and diversification, and the effects of climate change on Pacific Island countries’ competitiveness in international markets are contributing to unemployment and underemployment. Faced with limited job opportunities, poor working conditions, and climate uncertainties, many youths are migrating, leading to cultural disruption and spatial identity loss. Deepening the anxiety are the complexities of laws governing migration and citizenship, which include the potential for statelessness due to relocation. 


A mental health crisis 

The strain of climate change is also affecting the mental health of Pacific Island youth. The research describes the prevalence of self-harm incidents in the PICTs as demonstrated by the over 11,000 cases reported annually in recent years with a domination of young people aged 20-24 years among them. Countries such as Kiribati, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands, those most vulnerable to climate change, show the highest rates. 


Often overlooked are the human development impacts of the prospect of statelessness among Pacific youth, an outcome of stringent citizenship laws, migration restrictions, and climate change. The threat to their cultural identity and societal ties, rooted deeply in the land, is real, as they must choose between their homeland and a secure future. The report urges policy changes to protect identities and well-being in this rapidly transforming environment. 


Towards comprehensive strategies 

As part of its findings, this policy paper calls on policymakers to formulate comprehensive strategies to empower young Pacific Islanders to surmount these adversities. Proposals include measures for climate change adaptation, skill development for future markets, and resilience-building for identity preservation.  


With this paper, UNDP urges public and private sectors to collaborate to roll out mental wellness programs, addressing climate insecurities, and include youth voices in policy planning. 


Wignaraja added, "Climate change doesn’t discriminate but its impacts do. The burden on Pacific young people is enormous. Introducing and supporting policies that are sensitive to their unique situation is both an ethical imperative and a survival strategy”. “The climate challenges Pacific Island youth face today are a window into the future for youth globally. Their struggle, intensified by their unique circumstances, is a stark preview of the global youth’s future in the climate crisis.” 


Data points:  

  • Over 75%of the population in the Pacific Island Countries and Territories are affected by disasters. The proportion is highest in Vanuatu (95.8%), Micronesia (94.4%), Tonga (91.6%), and Fiji (91.5%). 

  • Pacific Island nations are expected to witness around 250,000 more fatalities between 2030 and 2050 as a result of climate change impacts on nutrition, malaria, diarrheal diseases and heat stress, according to WHO. 

  • Incidents of self-harm among the Pacific are prevalent, with 11,885 reported cases annually (data 2019) and a domination of 20-24 years old young people among them. 

  • In the Pacific regions, women and children experience violence at over double the global average rate. 

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