All posts by Heike Huntebrinker

About Heike Huntebrinker

'Sinking Islands' about Climate Change Marketing Manager ARTE Blog represents personal opinion.

A turning point towards a decarbonized world

„It’s time to come to an agreement!“ Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 conference announced. We have waited long to address climate change. After two weeks of hard work and 21 years of discussions, an ambitious agreement on climate change is approved. The document is a turning point for the faith of the world.

Pacific voices did not get drowned

COP21 was a moment of truth were islands facing up oil states for a just deal. Diplomats decided with foggy minds in night-long discussion about our future. The atmosphere was varying between hope, frustration and practical optimism. Threatened by rising sea levels, islands stood powerful and united and pushed the conference ahead. Tiny islands drove this change as they were seeking for a guarantee of their survival. But nevertheless the 1.5 °C target is a surprise win. Nations like Saudi-Arabia were long time blocking arguments for an ambitious agreement, as their economies were at stake. Tony de Brum, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Marshall Islands, emerged as moral leader of the conference and formed a coalition of high ambitious states. Finally Pacific voices did not get drowned. A turning point for the world.

 We are fighting, we are not drowning!

This conference is also a success for the climate justice movement. There was and still is a huge pressure from civil society at the conference venue of COP 21 – but also all over the world ahead and during the Paris conference. Hundreds of thousands took to the street demanding for climate action. Amazing pictures of colourful crowds were shared all over the world. Young people acted as agents of change as they are left with a climate mess. Many artists work to turn the tide with poems, stories and art. Also religious groups made a unprecedended push for climate action. The movement gained an important momentum with the encyclica „Laudato Si“ of the pope.  All of them stand in solidarity with the Pacific and other vulnerable regions of the world. The mobilization around COP21 lead to a form of inner resilience: It connected hearts and minds of many people worldwide. As Fenton Lutunatabua activist of the organisation summarized it: „I can see humans in humanity again.“

 Fair burden share and climate migration – the new big issues

But people will continue losing homeland to encroaching seas. After each destruction themselves: „Build it up or let it drown?“ Most households in the Pacific are mulling about migration. Young and old are divided over this topic. Younger people consider to move. Law traps Pacific islander yet on their islands as climate migration was in a legal limbo. Climate migrants are now recognized for the first time in the Paris agreement. The debate about climate migration gave the COP21 a human rights dimension.

Who will pay for the dire consequences of a hostile climate? Island nations asked for financial commitments from those who caused climate change. They wanted a compensation for the loss and damage that occurs in their country due to climate change and an easier access to climate finance. Not all demands were heard but the topic is on the floor now.

There is no time to lose

Climate change does not stop with an agreement.  After the conference the fight for climate justice continues. Not climate rhetoric counts but only climate action. The Paris agreement will lead to a massive boost of the renewable industry. States agreed on voluntary national contributions – the so-called INDCs. There were good and bad surprises. But the unexpected move to 1.5°C is politics. But is holding warming at 1.5°C realistic? The echoes of the scientific community are diverging. Though climate pledges are ambitious the targets of the agreements are too low lax to achieve a world well below 2°C warming. There is still the risk that we are crossing the thresholds of climate tipping points which leads to catastrophic warming.

The sea level is predicted to rise by up to a meter by the end of this century. On Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and Kiribati nearly 100 % of the population live below 5 metres above sea Level. Especially for the climate predictions for the Pacific region have data gaps with enormous uncertainties. Uncertain about the future, islands have to be prepared. Entire forests are planted to save island homes from erosion. Sometimes it’s enough, sometimes not. Some climate change impacts appear even sooner than sea level rise. As water and soil gets salted, islands will starve before they are flooded. Especially indigenous People carry this burden. Many important initiatives were launched in Paris to tackled climate change adaptation. Faced with loss of their islands, 5 nations launched the „The Pacific Rising“ plan – a Marshall plan for the islands. Let’s hope that castle-like seawalls and worse can be avoided.

A refrain of a song in Kiribati says „The angry sea will kill us all“. The conference was not about survival of islands only, but about saving humanity. Islands are ground zero of climate change, but no nation is immune to its implications. As an indigenous leader spokes out on the conference: „If we vanish, we vanish together.“ Therefore let’s head for a decarbonized world!

© 2015 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved. 


When PowerPoint culture clashes with indigenous culture

Experts shape discussions and actions of adaptation. For two reasons the process must be questioned: Do the experts fully understanding the social context and the real needs of the local population? Is it democratic that these experts set the agenda rather than the administration of states? This essay shows alternatives for a new ethics in adaptation management.

Who sets the agenda of adaptation?

National Adaption Programs of Action (NAPA) were developed to mainstream climate adaptation in national policy to avoid ‘one size fits all’ solutions. Multidisciplinary technical teams examined the priorities for adaptation to climate change of each country. Many bureaucratic input is necessary to access international funds. The procedures for acquiring budgets are sometimes Kafkaesque. Due to the limited administration staff on Pacific Islands, small island states need expensive external consultants for project proposals (Traufetter 2012). International experts tend to privileges managerial and bureaucratic responses or capital intensive technical and engineering solutions which have a primacy in developed countries. Civil society and grassroot movements were not sufficiently integrated in the development of NAPA plans.

 Community opposition to projects

The inclusion of civil society in the policymaking process is particularly important for Pacific Islands, because rural areas of the region are still shaped by tribal governance structures, strong chief authorities and customary rights over land. Central government structures have limited influence on communities, so that adaptation projects can be compromised by land-use conflicts and strong community opposition. Technical concepts of conservation management where protected areas are set aside for any management, can obstruct subsistence livelihood options and can lead to opposition to projects. Gilman and Ellison (2007) described a case were a family removed planted mangroves, because they blocked the boat access from their house to the sea.

For a dialogue in cognitive justice

A technocratic approach make people to passive actors rather that active participants in the process of adaptation. Experts are often in a stronger position of power and knowledge as people in rural communities have often no formal education and limited knowledge about climate change. Especially for indigenous people expert language is a main obstacle to take part in a meaningful conversation between experts and citizens. The abstract language creates fears and paralyses the constructive engagement of people. But experts should not confuse these knowledge gaps with incompetence. Abstract science is important to understand climate change. But outsiders tend to overestimate their ability to understand a place in any depth. A complete picture can be only drawn by paying attention to the experience and observation of locals. People do not need someone taking decisions on their behalf but rather take actions in a self-determined way. Local indigenous population must be involved in the planning process. It is therefore a duty for project managers to better translated their plans in user friendly information and tools in order to enter in a respectful dialogue with local communities.

The value of traditional knowledge

According to the principles of ‘cognitive justice’ advocated by the social scientist Shiv Visvanathan, it must be ensured that traditional knowledge is not marginalized. People who live there day-to-day see with their own eyes the changing environment and are affected by the related problems directly. Indigenous people are highly aware of the rising sea level and have a strong knowledge about local ecology and adaptation strategies. During focus group interviews community members mentioned mangrove planting as coping strategy against storm surge and sea level rise (Grantham et al., 2011).Information about the environment and traditional skills how to cope with natural disruptions passed down the family line over generations. And can serve as source for historical climate observations as well as a guideline for an appropriate local adaptation strategy and a sustainable use of natural resources. (Crate et al., 2009)

 A participatory decision-making process for adaptation

Community-based communication tools were developed to create a space for a citizens-expert dialogue and to involved indigenous groups actively in adaptation management. The WWF South Pacific Programme Office (WWF-SPPO) implements the approach in the South Pacific Region:

In cooperation with local stakeholders local data are assessed at sites. Low technology assessments are privileged to collect data so that community members can be better engaged in the assessment process (Ellison et al., 2012). The dialogue of stakeholders is enhanced in citizen’s workshops. The general framework of climate change is a starting point for discussions. Science, agreements and policy drafts are made accessible to the communities by translating them from legal language to everyday language. Local trained facilitator help to explain texts. Educational toolkits in local language with videos, flipcharts, radio features, posters, drama and street plays aim to make complex climate change science accessible to people with no formal education. (Khan et al., 2012, Gombos et al., 2010). Discussions are informal to overcome communication barriers between local indigenous people and project managers (Grantham et al., 2011).

Villagers commit in a self-determined way for adaptation goals. Action plans for climate change adaptation are developed on community level. Since decisions are taken by the community, they are socially acceptable. Though not legally binding, decisions entail compliance by social control. The local community is responsible for the implementation of the plan. Village committees for guiding conservation actions are selected (Ellison, 2007). People are trained in workshops in conservation skills (Saalem Khan et al., 2012; Techera, 2010) Indigenous people got empowered to cope with the new threats on their own.

Case of best practice: Locally Managed Marine Areas Network (LMMA)

The community based approach is practiced in Locally Managed Marine Areas Network (LMMA) on Fiji Islands. Launched in 1997, the LMMA developed a decentralized village-based network of communities working on marine conservation projects. In Fiji over 250 marine protected areas and 25% of Fiji’s coastline are protected by this governance regime (UNDP, 2012). In 2002 the project was rewarded as case of best practice with the ‘Equator Initiative Award’ of the United Nations Development Programme (Techera, 2010). The LLMA Network expanded as success story to several countries of the region (Figure 1) (UNDP, 2012). The conservation areas under traditional community law seems to be better protected than government-owned land. Ellison (2009) described that governmental mangrove forests on Fiji were sold for commercial activities, whereas mangrove forests under traditional law could have been kept aside for any management by taboos. Adaptation concepts can make use of this strong stewardship ethic for nature.

© 2015 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved. 

LMMA Network

Figure 1: Number of sites in the LMMA Network (Fiji, Indonesia, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Solomon Islands), 2000-2010 (Source: UNDP, 2012, p. 13)


Green conscience for Pacific holidaymakers?

The report ‘World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations’ suggests that you are making a good holiday choice when flying to Pacific Islands. But unfortunately climate change makes the picture more complex.

Pacific islands – Ethical holiday destinations

The report The World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations listed the Pacific island nations Palau, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu as winners of the 2015 most ethical holiday destinations (Greenwald, et al. 2015). It rewards the importance of environmental policy in these countries. Palau, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu were chosen because of their progressive energy policy and their goals for promoting resilience against climate change. They are becoming the showcases for the transformation to renewable energy.

Palau was already designated an “Environmental Star” by the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) for its extensive protected marine and terrestrial areas. Vanuatu is according to the Happy Planet Index considered as “Happiest Country in the World,” (Greenwald, et al. 2015). The index is calculated by a combination of different indicators like well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprint.

The shortcoming of the Ethical Traveler report is that national environmental and socioeconomic criteriums are chosen to consider if tourism to a country is ethical. The report did not take a close look at the local patterns of the tourism sector or questioned the tourism industry.

Ecotourism in the South Pacific?

The touristic infrastructure on Pacific islands is dominated by luxury resorts for premium rich holidaymakers. They are quite energy intensive and use a lot of freshwater. Though governments claim environmental goals, there is often a lack of dialogue between tour operators and local governments (Wong et al., 2013). One main structural disadvantaged of tourism Pacific islands cannot be tackled by any green policy: Due to the geographical situation of Oceania, most travellers reach the islands by far distant flights which are major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only tourists have to be transported to the Resorts, but also food, water and energy.

Risk that tourists move away

Tourism is a volatile business which is very vulnerable to climate change. On one hand, coastal-based, touristic infrastructure can be destroyed by sea-level rise and more intense tropical cyclones. Pacific island nations do everything to maintain this important source of revenue. Therefore, improving the resilience of touristic infrastructure is a major stake in Pacific Islands countries (Wong et al., 2013). On the other hand, tourist destinations loose attractiveness with coastal deterioration and coral bleaching. Extreme weather events and the spread of diseases like Malaria can spoil the image of a paradise holiday destination. Visitors may choose another place for Holidays.

Climate change tourism

In the last years a new touristic phenomena emerged on Pacific Islands: The climate change tourism. People come to watch and witness the climate change impacts. Newspaper articles appeared with lists of holiday destinations worth visiting before submerged by sea level rise. Visitors become an appeal of compassion with climate change victims and show their solidarity by repeating environmentalist slogans like ‘We are all Tuvalu’. But is this not rather voyeuristic consumption of climate change without questioning the own behaviour (Farbotko, 2010)? The perversity lies in the fact the attractiveness of the destination increases the more the countries are in peril of climate change.

Unfortunately, ethical tourist behaviour cannot be easily ticked down by comparison spreadsheets as the authors of the report The World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations suggest.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved. 

Mangrove restoration – The new marvel against coastal erosion?

Coastal erosion is the herald of sea level rise. Mangrove restoration is promoted as ideal response to this problem: It’s cheap, does not harm the environment and mangroves are even natural land-builders. But can mangrove ecosystems grow in tandem with the sea? Opportunities and limits of this adaptation strategy are tracked for the South Pacific island region against the background of climate change.

Coastal erosion – The herald of sea level rise

South Pacific islands are exposed to a high erosion risk by sea-level rise; 16% of land area of South Pacific islands is in low elevation coastal areas (<10 m). Currently, 70% of the coast of South Pacific islands are erosive (Nurse et al., 2013).). Many Pacific islands have small land mass, so that people have limited space to migrate landwards (Gilman et al., 2006). 50% of the population live in coastal areas (Russell, 2009). Adaptation strategies against coastal erosion are hence vital for this region.

Paradigm shift in coastal engineering

Artificial coastal engineering methods like seawall got a bad reputation because they are expensive and have detrimental erosive effects on adjacent ecosystems (Cheong et al., 2013, Nunn, 2013). This lead to a paradigm shift in coastal engineering (Cheong et al., 2013; Duarte et al., 2013). In the last years, mangrove restoration is promoted as cheap ecosystem-based alternative: Gilman and Ellison (2007) calculated that a 12 months restoration project cost them only USD $2,150. Mangrove restoration therefore a tempting adaptation strategy for developing countries with limited financial resources.

 How do mangroves protect against the ocean?

As intertidal habitat mangrove ecosystems are a natural buffer zone between land and sea. Mangrove ecosystems reduce the wave energy by 50% and stabilize shorelines with their roots (Alongi, 2008, Lewis, 2005). This protects against abrupt shoreline erosion after storm or tsunami events (Ellison et al., 2012). As mangroves are highly tolerant to fluctuating conditions, they colonize rapidly gaps after storm events (Alongi, 2008). Mangroves are also land builders: During tidal inundation and after storms and heavy rainfalls, substrates from adjacent coral reefs and rivers are carried to mangrove forests (Gilman et al., 2007). Mangrove roots slow the water movement so that fine clay and silt particles settle down the water column (Alongi, 2008).The accretion increases the local surface elevation. The short and mid time benefits of mangroves are uncontested. Optimistic scientists expect that mangroves allow islands to in rise ‘in tandem with the sea’ (Pala, 2014, p. 496).

 Mangrove ecosystems under pressure

South Pacific mangrove forests occupy an area of 5,975 km2 with large areas in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Caledonia (Ellison, 2009). But they are under pressure. Overpopulation on capital islands lead to a rapid deforestation and pollution of mangrove ecosystems (Donato et al., 2012). Streets cut mangrove forests from freshwater input. Dredged sediments reduce the substrate source for mangroves (Allen et al., 2001). Moreover, artificial coastal control systems like seawalls reduced the longshore sediment transport so that coastal zones turned to deepwater habitat (Gilman et al., 2006). When mangroves did not recover naturally, the ecosystems need to be restored.

 The success story of mangrove restoration

A success story of marine conservation is the Locally Managed Marine Area Network (LLMA) on Fiji Islands. Launched in 1997, the LMMA developed a decentralized village-based structure with over 250 marine protected areas. 25% of Fiji’s coastline are protected by this governance regime (UNDP, 2012). The project success relies on a good cooperation with local communities. Protected areas have an open-access regime with flexible rules for subsistence. Locals are involved in decision-making and in the conservation work. The project benefits also from the strong stewardship for nature of indigenous groups: Often LLMA areas are better protected than government-owned reserves. In 2002, the LLMA project was rewarded as case of best practice with the ‘Equator Initiative Award’ of the United Nations Development Programme (Techera, 2010).

 Vulnerability of South Pacific mangroves to sea level rise

The natural pressure on mangrove ecosystems is growing with climate change. On long-term, mangrove sedimentation rates must exceed the rate of relative sea-level rise to hold pace with relative sea level rise. The sedimentation rate is defined as balance of net erosion relative to accretion rates (Gilman et al., 2007). When sea level rise is faster than the sedimentation rate, the seawards margins of mangrove forests continue to erode and retreat landwards (Figure 1).

 mangrove graph

Figure 1: Sea level rise relative to mangrove surface (Source: Gilman et al., 2006, p. 10) 

Two factors make mangrove ecosystems of Pacific Islands vulnerable to sea-level rise: First, many have no significant sediment input from rivers or continental longshore drift (Alongi, 2008). Sedimentation relies on the supply of organic detritus and material from coral reefs (Gilman et al., 2006, Ellison et al., 2012, Alongi, 2008). Second, most Pacific islands have shallow slopes with tidal range of less than 1 m. Mangrove forests in Fiji, Marshall Islands, Federal State of Micronesia, Tonga and Tuvalu have today negative sediment budget balance. They experience a loss of land area. Only forests on Samoa and Solomon Islands have sediment budget balances over the projected sea level rise. 

Mangroves’ response to climate change

Yet, it is uncertain how mangroves respond to altered climate conditions: On one hand, the plant productivity and thus the accumulation of organic material can increase with higher atmospheric CO2 levels and precipitation levels (Ellison and Fiu, 2010; Gilman et al., 2006). One the other hand, rising water temperatures can lead to temperature stress for mangroves which support only water temperatures up to 24°C (Ellison and Fiu, 2010). Either, waves deposit more organic material from adjacent ecosystems or degrading coral reefs cut mangroves from sediment supply (Gilman et al., 2006; Ellison and Fiu, 2010).

Strong regional variance of sea level rise

The Pacific Island region shows a strong regional variance of relative sea level rise: First, the Pacific Island region is characterized by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). This natural ocean cycle causes a regional variability of sea level in the order of ± 20-30 cm (Nurse et al., 2013). Second, the region is shaped by strong tectonic plate movements: The Pacific plate subducts beneath the Australian plate to the east of Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu and north of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (Ellison, 2009). Subsiding areas at the east of this margin experience a higher rate of relative sea-live rise than stable areas or uplifting regions (Ellison and Fiu, 2010). Due to the high regional variance, the appropriateness of mangrove restoration as adaptation strategy is very site dependant.

Climate smart restoration

Climate smart restoration must therefore select restoration sites carefully to gain long term success. Unfortunately, fieldwork is often rather an uncoordinated quick fix approach. Seedlings are planted like in gardens in the hope that it works against erosion. Stressors which inhibit the natural regeneration of mangroves are not removed. (Nunn, 2013). The selection of ‘climate smart species’ (Ellison et al., 2012, p. X) is also crucial for project success: Plants of the genus Rhizophora are more tolerant to the salinity of ocean water (Ellison, 2007a). This makes them on long term more resilient to sea-level rise. After several years, it must be monitored, if young trees are able to gain full habitat functions.

Adaptation in a situation of uncertainty

It is difficult to prognosis if mangroves of the South Pacific Island region can hold pace with sea level rise. Mangroves cannot reverse long-term erosion trends – especially not when worst case emission scenarios become true. But mangrove restoration is at least a low-cost mid-term adaptation strategy which gives time to retreat in a situation of uncertainty. The limits of this adaptation approach must be well communicated to local population to prevent maladaptation and a false sense of security.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved. 

Trees, wind and coconuts – Samoa’s zero carbon target

The Pacific island state Samoa strives to be carbon neutral by 2020. The country goes for energy from wind and coconut oil. One million trees should be planted to offset carbon emissions. Also  the tourist sector explores unconventional ideas to reduce the carbon footprint. An example for a carbon neutral world.

Carbon neutrality as a question of survival

Pacific islands carbon footprint is insignificant relative to global carbon dioxide emissions. They contribute to less than 0.01% of the global total of carbon dioxide emissions. Nevertheless the Pacific is working to minimise their emissions through renewable energy actions. Samoa followed the example of the Maldives and proclaimed the objective of “a carbon neutral economy” by 2020. Carbon neutral means that emissions are calculated in a transparent process and reduced by a shift to renewable energy. By offsetting the residual emissions, the net carbon emission balance of the country will be equal to zero. Policymakers of Samoa and Maldives know that their carbon neutral policy will not reduce global emissions in a significant way. But for the islands it is important to send a signal that a carbon neutral world is possible. Since Maldives and Samoa are severely affected by climate change, it is for them a question of survival.

Coconut energy replaces diesel

Samoa’s roadmap to carbon neutrality focuses on the energy sector. Samoa has one of the highest electrification rates in the Pacific region; approximately 98 per cent of the population has access to electricity (Liu et al., 2013). But the problem is that most energy is produced by diesel. This creates high import costs for a remote island state. A plan to get ride  off diesel serves to reduce the high import costs as well as the carbon emissions. Samoa focuses therefore its carbon neutrality plans on replacing diesel by bioenergy technologies. Biofuel generators and bioethanol cars are developed on commercial and household scale on the basis of coconuts oil. The plant is locally abundant so that no energy has to be imported.

Intelligent wind farms

The islands can also benefit from the strong coastal breeze. In 2014, Samoa has inaugurated its first wind farm. Two huge 55 meters high turbines dominate now the landscape and are expected to supply people with 1,500MWh of power each year. Due to falling winds the International Renewable Energy Association identified the Pacific as a region where renewable energy provides the most cost effective source of power (Murray, 2014). Six further wind farm projects in the region are expected to replace 1.5 million litres of diesel fuel. The clue of the Samoa wind turbines is that they can lowered and locked in place in less than 1 hour. Since heavy cyclones are abundant in the region this collapsible design is an intelligent solution to avoid damages from storm events. The project is considered as showcase for clean technologies for other island countries.

Planting of 1 million trees

The agroforestry plays an important role in the plans of Samoa of becoming carbon neutral. Reforestation actions help to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it on long term. Samoa plans to plant a million trees in the next decade to meet carbon neutrality (Ward and Atatagi, 2011). New National Parks are approved by the government to increase forest area. It also planned to restore indigenous forests which are harmed by commercial logging and invasive species. The country adopted the UN program REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) to offset carbon emissions. With this policy, Samoa seeks to get access to funding opportunities of the carbon offset programs the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM). 

Becoming a carbon neutral holiday destination?

Samoa strives also to become a carbon neutral holiday destination. This is probably the most contradictory issue. Samoa’s tour buses and tourist transportations are switched to biodiesel. But luxury resorts that attract premium rich holidaymakers are energy intensive. Not to talk about the carbon emissions of a long distance flight required to reach the remote islands. During the Small Islands Developing States Conference in September 2014, the country developed a ‘Plant a tree’ carbon offset campaign to compensate the energy used for the thousands of plane journeys of the delegates. But as all carbon offset programs, they are contested because they do not lead to an absolute cut in emissions. Samoa Air took another pathway: It is the first airline which charges passengers based in part on weight. What sounds like a discrimination for obesity is rather a carbon tax. The price is based on the passenger’s total weight plus luggage. In aviation, a higher weight means more used fuel for the transport. With this policy, the airline would like to encourage passengers to carry less freight so that the carbon footprint of the flight gets smaller. And if this encourages people to lose some pounds, this has also a good side effect for public health.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.

Sacrificed Nauru – A tale about our mentality of carelessness

The tiny Pacific Island nation  Nauru is today trapped in a nightmare: The country is degraded  by unsustainable phosphate mining and the state is searching for an economical lifeline. On the same time, the island’s future is threatened by sea level rise. In her new book “This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate” the author Naomi Klein chose Nauru as an example for an area sacrificed to our mentality of carelessness.

Phosphate – A poisoned natural gift

Only 21 square kilometers large, the Pacific island Nauru was gifted with huge phosphate resources. Since the days of colonisation, this attracted miners from all parts of the world. In 1968 –  when Nauru became independent, the phosphate industry got nationalized. The state exploited in record speed the resources in the name of progress.

The big party in the 1970s

In the 1970s, Nauru became the wealthiest nation on the planet. People could have made wise investments for the future. But instead, the inhabitants preferred to celebrate a big party. Money was used up for consumption: People bought big boats, sports cars and immense housings. Many residents quit their jobs. The government paid even household staff. This sounds like paradise. But it turned out to become a tragedy.

Leaving a moonscape desert

In the 1990, the phosphate reserves of Nauru were almost entirely exhausted. A seriously harmed environment was left. Phosphate mining turned the central Plateau to a moonscape of barren terrain. 80 percent of Nauru’s land area is today uninhabitable. Marine life was seriously harmed by silt and phosphate runoff.

The desperate search for money

Since the wealth was used up by consumption, little cash was left. Investments of the national “Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust” failed and the country run out of money. In the search for a financial lifeline, Nauru became a tax haven and illegal money laundering center. In 2001, Nauru entered into an agreement with Australia to host Australian refugees in exchange for foreign aid. Nevertheless, the state is still on the brink of bankrupcy.

Becoming the fattest place on Earth

During its wealth period, people forgot about healthy food habits and turned to a lifestyle of fast food and less physical activity. Obesity became thus an important problem of the country. According to the WHO, 40 percent of the inhabitants of Nauru suffer from diabetes. Media consider Nauru often as fattest place of the word.

 A manmade nightmare

Today, Nauru is a manmade hell and a tale for the absurdity of globalization. The country struggles with a failed economy and a health crisis. The economy relies on imports for almost everything – from food and water to fuel. The environment is destroyed. Since the elevated zones of the islands are uninhabitable, people are very vulnerable to sea level rise. Islanders feel that they are trapped in a nightmare.

Why bothering about Nauru?

Nauru could have been exploited in suicidal way, because it was for the rest of the world unimportant and far away. This was paired with a local mentality of carelessness. Today, Nauru’s leaders use the fate of their country as warning example for the rest of the world. Like Nauru in the 1970s, we are living a lifestyle of overconsumption and facing the risk of an environmental collapse.

Naomi Klein reminds us with this story that we are currently dancing with the devil.

Klein, Naomi (2014): This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate, New York, Simon & Schuster.

Naomi Klein This Changes Everything

Apocalypse now – Are we on a track to dangerous climate change?

Scientists warn that we crossed the thresholds for dangerous climate change. Climate change will hence get beyond the control of humans. But what is dangerous climate change exactly and why is the 2°C global warming goal so important for climate negotiations? 

What is dangerous climate change?

Dangerous climate change means that a rapid irreversible ecological regime shift is triggered by crossing climate thresholds. Under this scenario, global warming will be intensified by positive feedback loops for example by the thawing of permafrost soils who release additional CO2 to the atmosphere or the melting down of glaciers. Other possible potential tipping elements for dangerous climate change can be found in Figure 1. The Earth System will move to another stable state.

Tipping points

Figure 1: Potential tipping elements for dangerous climate change (Source: Lenton et al. 2008, p. 1787)

 Apocalyptic world of dangerous climate change

A catastrophic shift is beyond human experience. In a world of serious climate change humans will have difficulties to adapt. Projection for a world estimate an apocalyptic sea level rise of up to 3,5 m and a local warming of up +8°C (Nicolls et al., 2010). Wide landscapes will become uninhabitable. Adaptation costs would explode to an unreasonable level. The worst case scenario leads a forced displacement and abandonment of coastal populations and large scale ecosystem changes. Inhabitants of small island states are today the first suffering the fate that is looming to millions of other people in the world. A highly undesirable world would be left to our children.

Safe operating space for humanity

Exact tipping points for a catastrophic shift of the interlinked Earth system are not yet fully understood. The time lag of between the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels and the response of the Earth System can lead to a false sense of security. Optimists think that we can cope problems with improved environmental engineering. But adaptation strategies cannot replace mitigation efforts because the new stable state (when warming comes to a hold) is not known, so that adaptation becomes a never-ending process. Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions is rather a precondition for any effective adaptation strategy so that humans are operation in a ‘safe space for humanity’ (Rockström et al., 2009) To avoid that climate change gets beyond the control of humans, the IPCC considered that the threshold of a manageable climate change requires a stabilisation of global warming on a level of 2°C.

Exceeded thresholds of dangerous climate change

Climate scientists warn that we might have crossed this threshold. The cut of global emissions are yet insufficient so that the current global warming curve follows rather the Highest Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP 8.5) of the IPCC scenarios for climate change (Sanford et al., 2014) (Figure 2). Though all Climate scientists are highly alarmed, many of them became silent in the public discourse about climate change. They fear that statements about crossed boundaries, can lead an unwanted fatalism to take any political actions. Many don’t want to give up the 2°C goal too early. But the analysis showed that we have not any more time to wait to take actions.

Figure 2: Trends in global CO2 emissions under four scenario (Source: Sanford, 2014, p. 165.)

emissions 2014

 © 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.

Gangs, riots and failed states – Climate change fuels urban conflicts

Landless climate migrants move to the capitals and exacerbate conflicts over the allocation of resources in overcrowded urban centers. In some Pacific Island states, the situation already got explosive. Desperate people, who have nothing to lose, chose violence as option of social action. 

Overcrowded paradise

Despite their divine appearance, many Pacific islands are overcrowded. The population density of Kiribati is higher than that of Hong Kong (McAdam, 2009). More than 35% of the people of Pacific Islands life and work in towns. Key drivers of this urbanization trend is the prospect of cash employment and education in towns. In hope for economic opportunities, families send their children to the capitals. 8 of the 22 Pacific countries are today predominantly urban. By 2020, more than the half of the population will live in towns (Russel, 2009). Natural resources in urban areas are already today overexploited and cannot supply enough resources for a growing population. 

The faith of landless people

With growing sea level, small islands get uninhabitable. People of outer islands are forced to move to urban centers in the search for new opportunities. This landless population settles in urban squatter areas and competes with townspeople over the allocation of water, land and food. In contrast to subsistence farmers, landless people rely on opportunities to earn cash money to buy expensive imported food. But outside government services, there are not many opportunities for paid employment in Pacific Island states. Unemployment rates are extremely high. The related emotional stress leads to problems of alcohol abuse and violence (Green, 2009). Frustration and tensions can explode.

 Raskol gangs terrorizing Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, the public degradation is at a level close to the threshold of civil war. Papua New Guinea is a multiethnic state. Loyalty is attributed rather to clans than to fragile governmental authorities. Despite the rich mineral resource, economic inequality is high in the country. Corrupt elites attributed the exploitation of resources to transnational corporates. More than 90% of the youth in Papua New Guinea are unemployed. One third of the population has less than $2 per day for their personal needs (Cauvet et al.,2010). Violence established as mean for survival.

The population is terrorized by armed ‘raskol’ gangs who establish their own law and order. Robbery, rape and murdering is in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby a daily occurrence. Especially foreigner live very dangerous, so that hotels are equipped like fortresses. Gangs transfer traditional tribal structures to the new form of gangster organization. The term ‘raskol’ means in Pidgin English bandits. In their self-conception, ‘raskol’ gang members are Robin Hood like fighters for social justice. (Timoshenko, 2010) In 2004, The Economist elected Port Moresby as the most unlivable capital city on Earth. In the same year, the Australian government was forced send police forces to Papua New Guinea to restore the public order. Australia allocated 1 milliard Australian Dollars for this intervention (Timoshenko, 2010).

Blue-helmet intervention on Solomon Islands

Unfortunately, Papua New Guinea is not the only example of the region how the social order of a state can break down. On Solomon Islands, tensions exploded since 1998 in violent riots. This  cost the life of hundreds of people. Over 50,000 people were displaced. Especially, ethnic Chinese groups became the scapegoat for frustration. In July 2003, the United Nations blue helmet intervention ‘Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands’ (RAMSI) was necessary to calm the armed conflict. (PSIDS, 2009). UN soldiers collected firearms to appease the situation. Over 300 RAMSI police officers helped to restore the public order. Nevertheless, the conflicts re-erupted in 2006: During this riots, Chinatown was burned down. Though increased efforts of the RAMSI mission calmed down the situation, the peace is still fragile on Solomon Islands.

In 2014, both Pacific island states are classed on the Fragile State Index of the Fund for Peace with a very high warning for the risk of state failure.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.

Carteret Island NASA

Carteret Islands – The challenge of relocating entire islands

The Carteret Islands got uninhabitable due to sea level rise. A local grassroots movement organises the relocation of the entire island group. Land and financial resources must be acquired and good relations are prepared with host communities. Despite of a large media coverage about the faith of Carteret Islanders, little external help was received to assist relocation plans.

Why Carteret Islands need to be relocated

The Carteret Islands is a group of small low-lying atolls 86 km northeast of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. They are only about 1 m above sea level. Laying in a tectonically unstable region Carteret is subsiding steadily. Storms caused erosion of land and saltwater intrusion in the soil so that the islanders were unable to feed themselves. Boats with food came two or three times a year. But on long term, it was not bearable that people could survive only by external aid.

Government’s incapacity to organize appropriate relocations

In the 1980s, the government of Papua New Guinea decided, that the 300 families of the Carteret Islands and three nearby islands need to be resettled to the neighbouring Bougainville. By 1984, 10 families were resettled. But the conditions for these families were very unfamiliar. People who used to live from fishing found themselves in land-locked locations in the middle of the bush far from the sea. They felt adrift because traditional marine skills were little help in subsistence gardening of unfamiliar crops. Children had to walk 6 km to school which are incredible long distances for people how used to live on small atolls. After this cultural shock, two families decided to go back to their home atolls (Campbell, 2012).

Tulele Peisa – ‘Sailing the waves on our own

In 1989, the civil war on Bougainville break out, so that all resettlement initiatives came to halt. People were not willing to move to a place in civil chaos. National government funds returned unspent to the central government. Erosion on the islands got worse, so that islanders could not wait any more to plan the resettlement. After a period of frustrating inaction the Carteret Council of Elders founded in 2006, the local NGO ‘Tulele Peisa’. The name ‘Tulele Peisa’ means ‘Sailing the waves on our own’ and reflects the desire to find an independent self-determined solution for resettlement plans (Rakova, 2009). The grassroots’ organisation filled the gap of institutions which were incapable to take actions.

Resources for relocations

A social mapping of the communities begun to collect data about the needs of all families. Four facilitators were engaged to provide training for sustainable livelihood. Workshops about climate change were hold to raise the awareness of islanders. A task force committee developed a 14 step plan for resettlement of 50 % of the island’s population by 2020. (Ferris, 2011) To avoid resettling in a precarious situation, it was defined that each family required 5 ha land: 1 ha for housing and personal gardens, 3 ha for livelihood for farming cash crops, 1 ha for reforestation (Displacement Solutions, 2008).

It was calculated that a sum of US$ 5.3 million is required for the period 2009 to 2019 to ensure the basic needs for a successful resettlement. Since the islanders do not have this money they depend on the government and international aid for the project. $ 800,000 was provided by the Papua New Guinea government. For further funding the organisation needs donations from private donors or international organisations.

The challenge is to find land, housing and livelihood for the uprooted people which allow them to continue their lifestyle of subsistence agriculture. Obtaining clear titles for land is very difficult because of competing claims of traditional owners, the government, the formal title holder and the land user. 96% of the land on Bougainville is subject to claims by customary landowners. There is no political will to buy land or expropriate land owners. Only 80 ha has been provided by the Roman Catholic Church which allowed some families to settle to this place.

Avoiding ethnical conflicts with host population

Tulele Peisa is conscious that the host communities must be integrated in the resettlement plan. The NGO tries to establish good relations with the existing communities by exchange programs of chiefs, women and children from Carteret and the host communities (Tulele Peisa, 2008). Ceremonial acts like the exchange of traditional shell money were carried out. Marriages between Carteret Islanders and Bougainvilians are promoted. But Tulele Peisa aims also to maintain the cultural bonds to the islands of origin. Relocated islander remain clan members. Regular sea transport services for passengers and freight should guarantee the connection to remaining islands. (Rakova, 2009)

Much media attention – Little help

Many filmmakers and radio stations told the world the Carteret story. The documentary “Sun Come Up” about the Carteret Island was Oscar nominated in 2011. The Carteret islanders toured through Australia and participated at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali in December 2007. The Carteret Islands got the icons for climate change refugees. But media attention did not yet turn into practical assistance to relocation plans (Tulele Peisa, 2008). Since 2010 the Carteret Islanders decided not to accept any more visits by journalists, tourists or researchers on their atoll.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.

Understanding Climate Change and El Niño

Pacific weather conditions  are dominated by El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). But what is this climate phenomena exactly and does it get altered with climate change?

What is El Niño?

The ENSO cycle is a natural climate variability in the Pacific region with cycles of about two to six years. During natural ENSO oscillations the sea level fluctuates of about 20 cm and causes large seasonal variations of precipitation patterns with long wet and dry periods between several years. In El Niño periods the Central and Eastern Pacific Ocean is warmer than average. More cyclones are occurring. In La Niña periods the Central and Eastern Pacific Ocean is colder than average. ENSO La Niña periods promote rather drought conditions in the South Pacific.

El Niño – Easy explained

You are not a scientist and need a simple explanation to grasp it? No problem. Watch this funny video of the climate crab and you understand the impacts of El Niño on the Pacific Island region:


Water scarcity in La Niña periods

In La Niña periods many islands experience situations of water shortage. Islands are not any more able to meet the citizens’ needs for drinking water. Water scarcity is a vital problem for many Pacific Island states. It is defined as lack of sufficient access to safe and affordable water for drinking, washing and livelihood. Since Pacific islands are poorly gifted with surface water and groundwater is too brackish to drink, many countries dependent on rainwater as primary water source. This makes the islands very vulnerable to variations of precipitation patterns.

How climate change affects ENSO

Climate change model projections show that ENSO events are becoming more intense and extreme with longer periods of drought and more frequent tropical cyclones. But model projections about rainfall pattern are inconsistent. Some preview an increase in rainfall, others predict reduced amounts of rainfall (Pacific Climate Change Science Program 2011, Power 2012). Though measurements do not show a significant trend for extreme weather events, the IPCC stated that it is very likely that small islands to the east of the dateline experience more frequent and intense and devasting tropical storms during El Niño events (Mimura, 2007).

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.