The IPCC report and the climate crisis in the Pacific

October 25, 2021

Photo: UNDP

Over 4000 pages, 14,000 scientific papers addressed, thousands of scientists from all over the world, one message: code red for humanity. 

The takeaways from the latest IPCC report published in August 2021 are unequivocal: based on our current trajectory, the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, global warming, and ocean acidification will increase. The Paris Climate Agreement target to limit global temperature rise at 1.5C is likely to be exceeded in the next 10-15 years. 

According to the IPCC, it is unmistakable that human influence has warmed the atmosphere and caused unprecedented climate changes. Some of these changes, such as sea-level rise, are irreversible and already set in motion.

But what does the report say about human security in the Pacific region – the most vulnerable to climate change and yet the one that contributes the least to global warming in terms of emissions? 

In the IPCC Regional Factsheet for Small Islands, conclusions leave no space for interpretation: changes in the environment are already and will continue to be the single greatest threat to the security and well-being of Pacific people.

Local fisherman in Tamana, Kiribati. (Photo: UNDP)

The average temperatures increased already about 1.1°C and will continue to rise, impacting human health and affecting agricultural output and food security. 

Ocean acidification has increased and will increase further with 1.5°C of global warming, affecting the health of reef ecosystems, where survival is essential for local fishing and the livelihood of communities. Moreover, damages to coral reefs will exacerbate coastal erosion, as they act as the first line of defense against storm surges and strong waves.

The global trend of rising seas will have the most severe consequences in the Pacific: it is posing a threat not only to the habitability of small island nations but to their very existence and survival as a nation. In Tuvalu, for example, the sea level has increased by approximately 13.2cm from 1993 to 2021 with a trend of 4.7mm per year. 

Moreover, sea-level rise coupled with storm surges and “king tides” exacerbates coastal inundation and the potential for increased saltwater intrusion, affecting the already fragile water security of Pacific people and communities. In Kiribati, for instance, where the land surface is nowhere any higher than 2-3 meters above the sea level, ocean waves have been as high as 3.5 meters in the last five years. 

Rising seas are also eroding coastal areas, causing shorelines to retreat, forcing small island states to invest in reconstruction actions and preventative climate change adaptation. All these are highly costly and put enormous pressure on their national budgets. 

In addition, land loss due to coastal erosion or disappearing islands will lead to land disputes and conflicts over marine resources. The reduction of available land will likely also cause a contraction of Pacific Small Island Developing States exclusive economic zone (EEZs), essential for regional stability and resource management.

The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will have severe consequences on small island nations, which, due to their geography, are the most vulnerable to the impacts of cyclones, king tides and other natural hazards. Their likely impact includes the destruction of housing villages and infrastructures and damages to agriculture and other livestock livelihoods. All these scenarios create conditions that could increase the violence on women and children.

Lau Group of islands, Fiji (Photo: UNDP)

The report confirmed what is already on our minds: we must act now and stop running towards our own extinction. Our future does not look good, but not all is lost.

Suppose world leaders come together and take proactive and immediate action now to cut global emissions. In that case, it is still possible to keep the temperature within the 1.5C limit and minimize the worst-case scenario.

Climate change financing, bilateral and multilateral funding, and government interventions need to recognize the linkages between climate change and security or they will fail to implement climate actions designed to address climate change.

Lau Group of islands, Fiji (Photo: UNDP)

The UN considers the climate security agenda as a key entry point for risk-informed development in the Pacific region. Its integration needs to be translated into concrete actions at the community level where the climate change impact on security is already a reality. Adaptation initiatives at the local level are happening: in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, for example, a community-based natural resources conservation planning framework (the Reimaanlook) has been developed to address the need of protecting natural resources and biodiversity which are essential to local people's livelihoods. But local adaptation measures are not enough. 

Catalytic initiatives such as the Climate Security in the Pacific project need to be expanded to other countries and islands in the region as part of a collective effort to address the multiple effects of climate change, requiring leadership from the highest level at the regional and global level. 

The upcoming COP26 is the occasion to bring countries together to agree on a comprehensive and ambitious coordination of climate action. The event needs to be a breakthrough for climate action and ensuring the necessary financial and political support by the global north to the most vulnerable countries.

COVID-19 was a painful lesson from which we have learned that global problems require global collaboration before it is too late.

We have just a few opportunities left to ensure our survival and many people will be looking at decisions made by member states to take climate action now before it is too late. 

For more information:

Martin F. Ras, Project Manager - Climate Security in the Pacific Project, UNDP Pacific Office, Fiji; email:

Giulio Fabris, Communication and Advocacy Specialist - Climate Security in the Pacific Project, UNDP Pacific Office, Fiji; email: