The bank for a changing world

Can the Pacific Islands still be saved from the threats of climate change?

  • Camille Saurel Journalist at Usbek & Rica
  • Paris
  • 04.01.2018

While we cannot stop a hurricane, we can limit the damage it causes. By learning from the past, we can take action now and pre-empt future disasters. Such was the message of Alexandre Magnan, a researcher at IDDRI (the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations), at a recent BNP Paribas Foundation conference.

In the hand dealt by climate change, Alexandre Magnan believes some of the cards have been reshuffled. “Global warming is not only about greenhouse gas and sea level rise”, bristles the IDDRI geographer and researcher. In fact, this Pacific coastline vulnerability specialist believes that certain climate change phenomena, namely the vulnerabilities linked to human development, are hugely under-represented. 

At a conference of the BNP Paribas Foundation, which has been financing climate change research projects since 2010, Magnan explained: “Climate change is going to exacerbate the pressures that already exist, such as those arising from land use, economic activity… and especially human development”. But rather than giving up the fight, the geographer is campaigning for each and every one of us to recognise the importance of the matter and take action.

Climate change is going to exacerbate the pressures that already exist and especially human development

A not-so-natural disaster

A rural exodus has already begun in the Kiribati archipelago (pronounced “Kiribas”), and the capital, Tarawa Atoll, is bearing the brunt of a mostly uncontrolled occupation of land linked to accelerated urbanisation. In just a few years, human concentration per km2 has increased from 3,000 to 16,000 - to put this into perspective, Paris has 20,000 inhabitants per km2. “This scale of human influx into these small, fragile areas is starting to take its toll, especially since populations do not necessarily have the means to protect themselves against rising sea levels.

The result is the development along the coastline of “fortifications”: drums filled with waste, and uncemented coral chunks, reflecting a lack of financial means and technical knowledge. “This clearly demonstrates that vulnerability is above all a human concern!”, says Magnan who for several years has been observing the transformation of these paradise islands due to climate change. But throwing huge amounts of money into building better seawalls wouldn’t make sense: how would their long-term maintenance be ensured without providing training to the local populations and sensitising local government?

Retrospective forward-thinking

To avoid hitting a wall, and to understand this complex issue, we need to step back and reflect. Indeed, Magnan believes that we can learn from the past: “Some inequalities can be explained by looking back to the mid-19th century when missionaries triggered major territorial upheaval in the form of urban centralisation, whereas populations used to be scattered across rural atolls; the shift from a subsistence economy to a market economy; the destruction of the financial system with the end of land ownership, and so on. That era, coupled with the population boom since the 1960s, has resulted in the environmental deterioration we see today”. 

today the goal is to adapt while integrating the challenges of climate change and development into the solutions: the two are often seen separately whereas they are intertwined

Knowing this should inform the actions of future generations. Thus, Magnan calls for vigilance with regard to the chain effects events in the past have created. Urbanisation has weakened the mangroves and their role of protecting coast lines against wave surges, and has ruptured the cultural-environmental link which has underpinned the identities of the local populations over the last three thousand years. Such observations raise the question of the sustainability of such mass migration. “Of course, today the goal is to adapt while integrating the challenges of climate change and development into the solutions: the two are often seen separately whereas they are intertwined.” 

If climate change is now inevitable, our future will depend on the choices and decisions we make today.

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