A look at COP21 to address the drowning climate challenges in the Pacific

A view of mangrove shoots planted on Tarawa, an atoll in Kiribati, one of the island nations in the Pacific experiencing the severe effects of climate change. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

Experts at the Asian Development Bank are warning that island states in the Pacific are at high risk of climate-induced migration and refugee flows in the coming years. This extremely high vulnerability has been the result of a number of factors: fragility, small size, relative isolation, highly dispersed populations and limited economies.

“The Pacific island countries lack the tools they need to address climate risks and corresponding impacts. In the long-term, some of the atoll nations would need to plan for migration as an option to address climate change,” Charlotte Benson, principal disaster risk management specialist, and Cinzia Losenno, senior climate change specialist, at the Manila-based institution told Devex.

“In the long-term, part or all of many low-lying atoll nations may become uninhabitable, and the global community must be prepared to accommodate these populations when they are forced to relocate,” the two experts said in a statement. Now is not an opportune time for another refugee crisis, with the Syrian crisis and Rohingya persecution already polarizing opinions about how the displaced should be handled.


Globally, island states in the Pacific are among the most vulnerable to the escalating risks and devastating damage from climate-induced disasters. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, has pointed in its assessment reports to the potential economic and social damage that climate-induced disasters can inflict (and, in some cases, has already inflicted) on these island nations.

The changing climate is already in effect in these island nations: Oceans are warming at an alarming speed, sea levels are rising, the frequency and strength of cyclones and typhoons have been increasing, agriculture and fisheries have dwindled, coastal ecosystems have degraded, and climate-related diseases have sprung up in numbers, among other impacts.

The effects have been so severe that entire nations including TuvaluKiribati and Vanuatu — composed of chains of low-lying islands — have sunk several inches over the past few years, forcing significant portions of the population to flee and become climate refugees. Other islands face a high likelihood of similar environmentally induced migration.

The socio-economic toll of climate change is already apparent, with flooding and natural hazards affecting commodities and transportation access, lowering average trend growth rates from 3.3 percent to 2.6 percent over the past two and a half decades. The International Fund for Agricultural Development, for instance, estimated that negative effects of rising sea levels can cost coastal communities in the Pacific almost $1.5 billion per year.


The ADB experts suggested that the key to empowering these island nations to increase their resilience to climate-induced disasters would be to understand the kind of vulnerability that afflicts them, with the provisions of the Paris climate agreement in mind.

“Understanding the vulnerability of the Pacific island states puts an even greater sense of urgency to the need to keep temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius,” Benson and Losenno said.

They added that there are also “adaptation strategies that can be implemented if we chose a future consistent with the Paris consensus” — with targeted local support at the center of the strategy — “to enhance the resilience of the Pacific island states in this transition and prevent migration from becoming the only solution.”

Pacific island nations — as well as other countries that are highly vulnerable to climate-related disasters — can also improve resource management capacity by preserving fisheries, agriculture, forests and other natural sources, according to the bank officials.

The international community should assist these small nations, they said, through financial assistance and technical resources to help them adapt.

The Paris climate agreement, while adopted in December 2015 by 195 countries, has a long way to go to actually be operational, the two experts said. Following a high-level signature ceremony in April in New York that saw 175 countries sign the agreement, the final step is the ratification at the national level — perhaps the most difficult part of the whole process to address climate change effects around the world.

“In order for the Paris Agreement to enter into force, it must be ratified by at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions,” the two ADB officials explained.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.