Tag Archives: Climate Change

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 350.org 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. 

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. 

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.

Climate change: Remote islands are struggling

Pacific Islands are characterized by their remoteness. This has massive influence on the economic development of islands and their capacity to adapt to climate change. Only a few shipping lines connect the dispersed islands with the world and bring merchandises, resources and experts to the islands. Imports and exports and the repairing of damages after disasters are thus extremely expensive.

Video message from the SIDS Conference 2014

In September 2014, a Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) was hold in Samoa. An impressive video showed how remote Pacific Islands are especially struggling to cope with climate Change:

The role of Fiji

Fiji has a central role for the developement of the region. The airport on Fiji has regular international flights and serves as hub to distribute goods in the region. Most regional organizations and many embassies are centralized in Fiji’s capital Suva. The University of South Pacific in Suva is the intellectual center of Oceania. It is financed by 12 insular states. Many countries are also dependant on the higher level of health services of Fiji.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.



Water shortage in paradise

Surrounded by sparkling blue sea, many Pacific Islands facing the risk that freshwater scarcity could turn their islands uninhabitable. Tuvalu declared in 2011 the state of emergency due to water scarcity. During six month it did not rain on the remote atolls. Approximately 1,500 people of the 11,000 inhabitants run out of fresh water (BBC, 2011; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2011).

Why is there water scarcity on Pacific Islands?

One reason for the water crisis is climate change. Nations like Tuvalu are tiny atoll islands with thin freshwater lenses and no rivers or lakes. The warming trend lead to higher evaporation rates, so that more precipitation is required to replenish the freshwater lens. By sea level rise, more seawater pushes against the freshwater lens of atolls, so that groundwater gets too salty to drink.

Since groundwater is not potable, rainfall collected by roof catchments is often the primary source of freshwater. This makes people very vulnerable to droughts. The region is characterized by dry and wet seasons and strong variation of precipitation patterns due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Every two to six years La Niña periods with drought conditions occur. With climate change, ENSO events become more intense with longer periods of drought. But during the drought crisis of Tuvalu in 2011, precipitation pattern lay in the range of normal variations (Pacific Climate Change Science Program 2011). Why was Tuvalu not any more able to meet the citizen’s needs for water?

 Other driving forces for water stress

The driving force for water scarcity is not only the lack of resources, it is also a question of an increased water demand. In the last years the domestic use of water grew with new lifestyles, cars, washing machines, and imported food. Households got equipped with flush toilets which increased the water demand increased by 25-40 % (GEF Pacific IMRW, 2012).

Problems were exacerbated by a high population density. With 333.3 people per km2 Tuvalu has today one of the highest population density in the world (FAO, 2012). The rapid population growth lead to a fast urbanization with quickly constructed insufficient water infrastructure. Rain tanks are often leaking. The growing number of family members compromises the water security in drought periods, because water tanks were constructed to cater a smaller number of family members. Many people have no paid work, so that they cannot afford to buy new water tanks. For households without income, even low fees for water from public cistern can be too much.

Poor families use the salty groundwater as emergency water source in periods of drought. But today, groundwater is often contaminated by heavy metals from waste dumps and by facial bacteria from leaking septic tanks. Health authorities on Tuvalu strongly recommend not to drink well water. But in drought periods poor people and islanders far from public cisterns have no choice. Therefore, waterborne and water-related diseases like diarrhoea and cholera, are likely to occur.

How to cope with the problem of water scarcity?

Disaster risk reduction measures are cheaper than emergency relief. The increase of water storage capacities and sustainable use of local water resources has a high priority for Pacific island nations. Water catchments get improved, communities get equipped with desalination units and dry composting toilets are installed. Educational videos like “Falevatia: A toilet for our future.” highlights the benefits of this low tech solutions:


Public awareness campaigns seek to improve knowledge about water resource management. Since national TV channels do not exist, the radio is the best way to reach people on remote islands. Weather forecasts get improved because in situations of drought they give time for emergency adaption.

Water scarcity could also compromise the food security of islands. Pulaka (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) is the main staple of the traditional diet of Pacific islanders. It has a low capacity to tolerate saltwater. Crops die due to saline water contamination, so that the cultivation of salt resistant crops is now promoted.

Outlook to the future: Is it too late for domestic adaption?

Regional governments are aware of the limits of adaption. A growing population compete over the allocation of water resources. It is not sure, if islands can cope to with less stable precipitation patterns in the future. The IPCC stated in the Forth Assessment Report that it is very likely that low-lying island states are getting entirely uninhabitable long before their full submersion due to the lack of water (Mimura et al., 2007). Some settlements had to be already relocated due to the lack of water.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.