Last month, Nanoua Lilivai Ewekai stood in front of government leaders at the Pacific Island Forum climate dialogue and delivered an emotional plea for developed countries to step-up.

The 20-year-old Tuvaluan was resolute in her message that young people from the low-lying atoll did not want to lose their country.

The survival of Pacific communities relies on developed countries significantly reducing their emissions. In order to stay within 1.5 degrees warming, as promised in the Paris Agreement, experts are now talking about a global mobilisation comparable to that of WWII.

But the window to begin the mobilisation is closing, as the world marches towards 3 degrees warming. And the Pacific – the veritable canary in the coal mine – is being increasingly buffeted by devastating storms, and facing the loss of resources and lands.

The Pacific leaders ended the forum by circulating a strongly worded communique acknowledging the impacts and implications of the “climate change crisis” facing their Pacific Island Nations.

“You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia… I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.”

But as Ewekia has expressed on numerous occasions, when talking on behalf of the Tuvalu Youth Council, words mean little without action.

Australia refused to commit to phasing out coal, and in response to backlash from Pacific Island leaders – most notably Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga – Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his stance by pointing to the survival of his economy.

This economic argument doesn’t sit well with small island states. As Sopoaga put it: “You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia… I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.”

Some of the world’s biggest emitters see the Pacific as a crucial strategic region. As the Asia-Pacific Region becomes the focal point of China’s meteoric rise, and shipping lanes are contested, power players look to gain more of a foothold in the blue continent.

Over the past eight years Australia, China, New Zealand and the United States have given a total of almost NZ$11 billion in aid, by way of grants and loans.

But that money is no longer good enough. As Climate Change Minister James Shaw says, it cannot be a case of either funding and supporting adaptation and resilience programmes, or cutting emissions. It needs to be both.

With the reward of having a foothold in the Pacific, comes great responsibility. And currently, heavy hitters like Australia, China and the United States are not pulling their weight.

Nanoua Lilivai Ewekai, 20, from Tuvalu has called on major powers in the region to step-up their commitment to reducing emissions, and saving the Pacific. Photo: Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat/Supplied

In a video message to global leaders last month, Ewekia demanded answers.

“How would you feel if you lose your country? Lose your island, lose your language, your identity, and your culture, and you have nowhere to turn?”

In 2018 she performed a poem, where she called on developed nations to realise the suffering of her nation.

“My heart cries with sorrow for what the people of my island have suffered as developed countries have armed the globe, and my people experiencing the heat; the heat which rises and continues to rise.”

Young people of Tuvalu would unite their calls for everyone to commit to the Paris Agreement.

“The United States have fought and saved the Pacific in WWII, the United States can still save Tuvalu and the Pacific from climate change, because saving Tuvalu is saving the world, and the future.”

This month, Ewekia will travel to New York, where she will stand on the world stage at the United Nations Climate Change Summit and deliver the same plea to countries, on behalf of the Pacific.

Know the risks and stay anyway

The determination from Pacific peoples, like Ewekia, to stay in their own countries and communities, is resolute.

Conversations about climate refugees, and ‘migrating with dignity’, from the past couple of years are over.

Shaw says Pacific peoples are very clear: “There is a ‘Plan A’ and that is it.”

If populations are going to remain in their own islands and communities, countries need to lower their emissions. Meanwhile, everyone involved in the Pacific needs to be aware of the dangers, and how to mitigate and adapt.

Climate risks facing the Pacific are many and varied.

The issue that grabs the most headlines is that of sea-level rise (we’ll come back to this later). But experts who spoke to Newsroom all named severe weather events as the most immediate danger to life and property.

“We have a collective responsibility to safeguard the region and all its resources for the next generation.”

University of Auckland development studies professor Andreas Neef tells a story about a small community on an exposed lagoon in Fiji, who were marooned for hours in 2016.

Ahead of Cyclone Winston, the community thought it was safe from storms. But when the storm made groundfall, they stood together in the community hall, holding their children over their heads, with water to their necks.

Community members remained there for hours, praying the water would recede.

Cyclone Winston damaged or destroyed 40,000 homes throughout Fiji, leaving 131,000 people in immediate need for shelter. Meanwhile, 230 schools were damaged or destroyed – about a third of all of Fiji’s schools.

The retrospective cost of Winston was NZ$2.2 billion.

Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu in 2015, destroyed or damaged 17,000 buildings, and forced many people in Port Vila to return to their islands.

Pam came in at an estimated cost of NZ$700m.

Cyclone Gita, which hit Tonga in 2018, had an estimated rebuild and recovery cost of NZ$260m, and similar devastating effects.

A Church destroyed by Cyclone Winston in Fiji, in 2016. Photo: Supplied

As well as the destruction of homes, schools and other infrastructure, storms destroy crops. Neef says it takes up to eight months after a storm before taro or cassava can be harvested, leaving people to rely on food parcels for extensive periods.

Storm surges also damage coastal areas and protections, leaving seaside communities vulnerable.

As the frequency of storm events increases, countries struggle to recover physically and financially. Where they used to have an average of five years between storms, they are now facing events every two years.

Retrospectively, the cost of storms can be calculated, but it’s harder to project costs for most of the risks the Pacific is facing, including the pollution and depletion of fresh water sources, droughts, marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and coral bleaching, king tides, changing ecosystems and sea-level rise.

Pacific Island member countries have a combined population of about 12 million, and all will be affected by in some way, to varying degrees of severity.

“It’s all pretty bad news… no-one is escaping from it,” Neef says.

Show me the money

Regardless of the costs, there is currently not enough money going into the Pacific to adapt and build resilience.

Between 2011 and 2018, NZ$16.2b has been spent on development aid in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, developed countries committed to the Paris Agreement have promised to mobilise US$100b in climate finance per year by 2020, with the Green Climate Fund seen as a core part of meeting that goal.

Since starting operations in 2015, the Green Climate Fund has allocated US$5b to 102 projects and programmes.

However, the Pacific struggles to access the fund, due in large part to its governance structure and political bureaucracy.

For this reason, Australia has stopped contributing to the fund, and instead gives aid directly to the Pacific. 

New Zealand holds similar concerns, and is putting pressure on the fund to change its model. In the meantime, New Zealand is continuing with its contributions – so far totalling NZ$3m – but won’t increase the proportion of funding.

The bulk of New Zealand’s aid goes directly to the Pacific, so countries can access the money when they need it.

Last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a NZ$300m global commitment to climate change-related development assistance, and $150m has now been ring-fenced for the Pacific, to go towards infrastructure such as water tanks and better tools and training to manage droughts, floods and coastal inundation, customised climate information across different sectors, projects to eliminate invasive species that threaten food security, and improving access to international climate finance.

This is a drop in the ocean in terms of the total costs of what the Pacific is facing.

Progressing without a plan

A lack of money isn’t the only thing plaguing efforts to build resilience.

While New Zealand’s aid programme includes NZ$5m for climate hazard mapping and risk planning, Professor Paul Kench, who is now based at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, says the world has dropped the ball when it comes to “robust and rigorous analysis” of how different Pacific Islands are likely to be affected by climate change.

“I can almost guarantee we will waste huge sums of money doing very silly things that won’t really change the landscape for Pacific Island countries at all.”

Donor countries have a well-intended desire to help but they are trying to solve problems they haven’t sufficiently identified or articulated, Kench says.

The coastal geomorphologist has spent the better part of 20 years studying how islands change, and in recent years, he has focussed specifically on Tuvalu and low-lying atolls.

Across dozens of published articles, the research shows the islands are dynamic, morphing due to the sand and gravel generated on the reefs. Like any beach, they change.

But the ultimate findings of Kench’s work aren’t convenient for the current binary discussion on sea-level rise.

Paul Kench has spent decades researching how islands change, and has found the vast majority of Tuvalu’s islands are increasing in size. But communities will still face stress due to climate change. Photo: Supplied

In mapping every island in the Tuvalu archipelago, Kench found the vast majority of islands increased in size, or at least remained the same. A small number diminished in size.

Kench is quick to say he has never said no island has disappeared, or will disappear, but the majority trend is the other extreme.

Island nations have not received the research well, and frustratingly, Kench quickly became a poster child for climate change deniers.

Regardless of the political appetite, Kench says this type of analysis and planning is what will create constructive conversations about how to properly target resources and projects. 

“If you think about this, it provides you some real meat to have a discussion on the international forum about helping them figure out the way forward.”

The message of “we’re drowning” is helpless, he says. But being able to articulate how dynamic islands will change, and which communities will be under stress, is likely to result in more adaptation funding – it’s tangible, and solvable.

This also fits with Pacific peoples’ desire to stay in their homes.

Further research and analysis needs to be carried out within the next 24 months, in order to implement changes within the next 10 to 20 years.

If the process isn’t started now, the timeline could easily push out to 50 years, then the region will be forced to resort to emergency response each event.

The challenge of domestic politics

New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister James Shaw acknowledges every country needs to step-up if the Pacific is going to be saved from this existential crisis, including the likes of Australia, China and the US.

Ardern’s highly publicised speeches about climate change, including at the UN General Assembly last year, have been well-received. 

But in the wider scheme of things, New Zealand’s record isn’t so flash.

“In a democracy, you can’t do anything without your voters – your population; you just can’t. Or if you do, the results of that have to be able to be sustained across election cycles.”

In 2017, New Zealand country’s gross greenhouse gas emissions were 80.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) – up 2.2 per cent from the previous year. And just a whisker below 2013’s record high.

New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Bill puts in place a framework to keep warming within 1.5 degrees and commits to net zero carbon by 2050. It passed its first reading earlier this year, with almost unanimous support. But measures of this kind are long overdue.

“I think that we’re still in this view that actually the rest of the world’s not getting anywhere and messing around with it and we’re number 1. That is absolutely not the case. The sense of urgency in capitals, on every continent, is enormous.”

Australia has copped a lot of flack recently over its refusal to commit to phasing out coal, but Shaw says Australia is investing heavily in the Pacific, and New Zealand needs it to continue – both for the quantum of money it contributes, and for its ability to coordinate on projects.

And when it comes to a country’s domestic policies, leaders need to take their populations along with them.

“In a democracy, you can’t do anything without your voters – your population; you just can’t. Or if you do, the results of that have to be able to be sustained across election cycles.”

Pacific Peoples Minister William Sio also acknowledges the importance of leaders persuading their populations. But for the Pacific, that change isn’t happening fast enough.

“We have a collective responsibility to safeguard the region and all its resources for the next generation,” Sio says.

As a person of Samoan heritage, with a matai, or chiefly, title – Sio says he doesn’t want to imagine a life without a connection back to that land.

Countries across the world need to moblise to cut their emissions, if the pacific is going to have a viable chance of survival.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Pacific Peoples Minister William Sio (right) have made a promise to the Pacific: that New Zealand will do everything it can to help people stay on their lands. Photo: Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat/Supplied

And those superpowers with refreshed interest in the Pacific need to open their wallets, and their ears, to their Pacific island partners, because New Zealand can’t do it alone.

The experts who spoke to Newsroom were divided on whether Pacific peoples would be able to avoid climate migration – there has already been some internal displacement. But Sio is resolute in his desire to make good on New Zealand’s promise.

“From where I stand, New Zealand will stand with the Pacific to fight for their right to live on their ancestors’ land. We will stand with them to fight for their right to keep all their resources, and fight for their right for self-determination.”

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