Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Mar 04, 2023
One Region, Two Narratives: The Pacific, Climate Change, and Security This article is a chapter in the journal — Raisina Files 2023.
The Global Narrative about the Pacific largely focuses on the geo-strategic competition that is playing out in the region.  China is seeking new security deals with Pacific Island countries, prompting intensified diplomatic engagement with the region from Australia and its democratic allies.  Strategists are concerned that greater regional security ties with Beijing, coupled with targeted Chinese political engagement and concessional finance, may over time help China establish a naval base in the region to support a blue water navy extend its global reach. The inhabitants of the Pacific themselves see security through a fundamentally different prism and have made it clear that they see climate change as their most serious security risk. They express impatience with the strategic rivalry between their external partners, alarm at signs of greater militarisation in the region, and frustration that the international community has been giving climate change less attention than they believe it deserves. As the then Fijian Defence Minister put it in 2022:
Machine guns, fighter jets, grey ships and green battalions are not our primary strategic concern. Waves are crashing at our doorsteps, winds are battering at our homes, we are being assaulted by this enemy from many angles.<1>
In their 2018 Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) security declaration, the region’s leaders made it clear that they saw climate change as “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific.” This sentiment in the ‘Boe Declaration’ lies at the core of other important regional statements and documents.  It is central to the PIF’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent<2> which sets out the Pacific community’s thinking on a pathway to a more secure, resilient, and prosperous regional future. These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. To accept that climate change presents the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) with an existential challenge does not require ignoring the China problem. Many Pacific islanders share concerns from other geographies about the expansion of Chinese influence, and there is a contest of values underway in the region. In some countries, Beijing’s aggressive public information activities threaten to undermine media freedoms;<3> there is also a lack of transparency in the links between Beijing and some leaders in the region,<4> and civil society representatives are concerned that Chinese training activities for military and police forces in the region will undermine their commitment to respecting freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate.<5> Those who hope to engage successfully in the region must have a clear grasp of the Pacific islanders’ overriding perspective—i.e., that climate change is an existential threat and therefore their top priority.

The Vulnerability of the Pacific

Current discourse on the Pacific’s vulnerabilities to climate change tends to underestimate the challenge, focusing on potential impacts of sea-level rise on fragile, low-lying atoll countries.  Indeed, Pacific leaders themselves have repeatedly highlighted this risk in global forums, as they have worked to convince the international community to take stronger climate action. The Tuvalu Foreign Minister’s speech before the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26),<6> which he delivered as he was knee-deep in seawater, was a high-impact way of making such a point. Environmental scientists agree that sea-level rise is a serious consequence of global warming and a significant challenge for the atoll countries, even if estimates of the potential extent of the rise remain subject to a large margin for error.<7> Yet, the threats are more complex and extend to all countries of the region. While the reef island nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Marshall Islands are among the most climate-vulnerable in the world, others such as Vanuatu, Tonga, Solomon Islands and PNG are some of the most disaster-prone.<8> Across the region, climate change is making flooding, storm events, droughts, and biodiversity loss more frequent and intense. Saltwater intrusion is degrading groundwater resources, leading to a reduction in available agricultural land, and higher water temperatures are damaging reefs and, therefore, leading to a decline of fish stocks.<9> Global warming is likely to see tropical tuna stocks shift into sea territory outside island states’ economic zones,<10> denying the people a vital source of revenue and food security. The implications for the region’s economic prospects are significant indeed.  Deloitte estimates that, because of climate change, the economic growth trajectory across the broader Indo-Pacific may slow down to three percent on average between 2050 and 2070, about one point lower than annual growth in the first 20 years of this century.<11> The PICs are especially vulnerable given the central role of their agriculture and fisheries sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on their economic progress, hitting their tourism industries particularly hard. This presents a crisis of multiple proportions for the region. As Australia’s Climate Council puts it, however, the Pacific should not just be seen as a “poster child”<12> for the existential threat that is climate change; nor should the PICs be regarded as merely passive participants without agency.  Over the years, countries of the Pacific, working with other small island developing states, have worked to bring global warming to the centre of global discourse.  Most recently, in late 2022, Vanuatu led the way in tabling a UN resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice to clarify what responsibilities governments have to protect future generations from the adverse consequences of climate change.<13> Such an advisory opinion from the ICJ could strengthen the positions of vulnerable countries in international negotiations and help define climate change as a human rights issue.<14>

Climate Change as a Regional Security Issue

Since the change of government in Australia in May 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has acknowledged what the Pacific Islanders have long been trying to underscore: that climate change needs to be seen as a pressing security issue for Australia and its Pacific neighbours.<15>  Indeed, many other governments have acknowledged for some time now that global warming should be seen through a security prism. The fact that Albanese found it necessary to explicitly spell out such a link largely reflected the reluctance of his predecessor, Scott Morrison, to do so.  The Morrison Government saw national security as a priority that played to its strengths but showed little real enthusiasm for climate action. There is no dearth of literature examining the link between climate change and security. For example, Chris Barrie, a former Chief of the Australian Defence Force and honorary professor at the Australian National University, describes climate change as a threat multiplier which intensifies social fragility, further strains already weak institutions, shifts power balances, and destabilises peacebuilding and recovery efforts.<16>  Some security analysts highlight, for instance, that the Syrian civil war, which began with a general uprising in 2011, followed the country’s worst drought on record.<17> While there were other factors to the public discontent—including the regime’s brutal response to the uprising and the role of extremist ideology in the emergence of the Islamic State—food insecurity and the resulting rapid urban drift played crucial roles. Some observers argue that there is little evidence that climate change is a direct cause of conflict in the Pacific,<18> but acknowledge that it can at least interact with existing conflict drivers in unhelpful ways. While there have been no climate wars in the Pacific, conflict specialists point to the risk that climate change will exacerbate existing tensions in fragile parts of the region.<19>  One example is Papua New Guinea’s autonomous region of Bougainville, where a post-conflict society is still struggling to get back on its feet from the secessionist war of the 1990s. Another example is the overpopulated Malaita province of Solomon Islands, a flashpoint in the civil war of the early 2000s that led to the deployment of an Australian-led regional stabilisation mission, and where environmental degradation has led to reductions in arable land.<20> It is in local, every-day, community-level life where the security implications of climate change in the Pacific are most stark. In Papua New Guinea, tensions within family groups and communities, or between neighbouring tribal groups, can explode in ways that may not gain the attention of international strategists, but which nonetheless cause great social damage.  In the slum settlements in PNG’s national capital and other urban centres, or in traditional villages confronted with food insecurity, conflict can manifest itself in family and gender-based violence, or in tribal fighting over scarce resources.<21>  This kind of ‘lower-level’ conflict tends to pass unnoticed by those used to working on a broader strategic canvas.

Climate Change Partnerships with the Pacific

To be regarded as a truly valuable partner by the Pacific nations requires showing, in word and deed, strong support for the region’s concerns about global warming. Partner nations can do this both by cutting emissions at home, working to enable greater global cuts in the coming years, and supporting the PICs as they struggle to contend with regional impacts.  Initiatives in this field will be seen by the region’s countries as more important than military partnership and support. But why should this kind of engagement with the Pacific be a priority at all? It goes without saying that the Pacific’s experience with climate change will likely presage what is to come for the rest of the planet. This should give all of us a fundamental interest in the region. The protection of biodiversity across the world’s largest ocean should stand as a worthwhile cause all on its own. The arguments for engagement can also be expressed easily in strategic terms. For Australia, the region is well understood to be of primary strategic concern given the imperative to protect the supply lines that stretch across the ocean and link Australia with its most important ally, the United States. The southwest Pacific can also present risks associated with political stability, illegal migration and transnational crime that require careful, every-day management for a littoral country like Australia. Canberra has historically accepted a responsibility to support the PICs when they are beset by natural disasters or civil conflicts. For other more distant Indo-Pacific powers, including India, the arguments for engaging the Pacific may be less obvious and immediate, but they are clear enough, just the same. China’s growing activity in the region portends significant changes in the global strategic balance. As this author has argued previously,<22> the democratic powers cannot simply leave it to Australia in the Pacific, to carry the democratic ‘standard’ and engage the region amidst an increasingly difficult struggle between two value systems. Thanks to its new, more progressive climate change stance, the current Australian Government is better placed than its predecessor to help guide broader international engagement with the Pacific. It has pledged a 43-percent reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and has set a target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.  While some other developed countries are pursuing even more ambitious climate objectives, this is a more forward-leaning approach than that of the previous Australian administration, and it has better positioned Canberra to signal to the Pacific that it is serious about climate change. Australian ministers visiting the region have made a point of emphasising their solidarity on the issue, and Australia took the opportunity of COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh to lobby to host a conference in the region of the UN Climate Change Convention parties. This is of symbolic value, even if there remains some scepticism in the region about Australia’s resolve to abandon fossil fuels.<23> This is supported by a substantial regional program of development support focused on climate change. Australia is providing A$2 billion in climate finance over 2020-25 to developing countries in the Indo-Pacific, with at least A$700 million of this being directed to the Pacific given the region’s particular vulnerabilities. Through its development programmes, Australia works to protect biodiversity and help build community resilience to climate change, while delivering direct humanitarian support to those impacted by food insecurity. Supporting regional responses to climate change presents some capacity challenges for Australia. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has for some time now accepted that the growing frequency of climate-induced natural disasters in the region, combined with the risk of exacerbating conflict, risks stretching Australian military capability and deployments.<24> The widespread flooding in some parts of Australia in the first weeks of 2023 is also a reminder that the ADF and other emergency response organisations will remain hard-pressed in managing the impacts of climate change at home. A factor in Australia’s calculus must be that climate change could lead over time to significant population displacements in its neighbourhood.  Mass migration is, after all, held to be one of the most significant impacts of climate change.  This is not merely theory; it is estimated that up to 24 million people have been displaced by climate effects each year since 2008.<25> While the size of population movements brought about by climate change would likely be more significant in Australia’s southeast Asian neighbourhood, given the relatively small size of the Pacific communities, Australia would be expected to shoulder a more significant share of the responsibility when it comes to climate refugees from the Pacific. Other countries have much more direct experience of climate-induced population displacement. India is a notable example. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), five million Indians were displaced because of climate change and natural disasters in 2021.<26>  India is itself widely agreed to be among the most vulnerable countries to global warming, with as much as 80 percent of the population living in regions that are potentially exposed to extreme weather events.<27>  India has also learned a great deal about the impact of climate change on agriculture. All this should make for an informed and sympathetic partnership with the Pacific. In considering climate change partnership with the region, India could draw on its own experience in confronting the effects of global warming along its long coastline and across its own 1,300 small islands. A number of major democratic nations and international organisations have signalled an interest in engaging the Pacific more closely. Japan, the United Kingdom, the European Union and United States have all announced policy initiatives to this effect in recent times. And France remains a significant Pacific power, maintaining three territories in the region and a significant aid and military presence.<28> Each of these entities have important contributions to make in helping mitigate the region’s own emerging ‘polycrisis’ which combines a stark climate threat with the residual effects of a damaging pandemic and the potential harmful influence of an expansionist Chinese regime. India, with its impressive development narrative, major power status and cultural links to the region, also has an important part to play. While the PICs would be interested in India’s own credentials as a country committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, their expectations will naturally differ from those applied to Australia, given India’s different place on the development trajectory. The region’s policymakers will have noted India’s updated national climate plan including it 2070 net-zero goal and 45-percent reduction in emissions intensity by 2030. As with Australia, there will be some who argue that these targets do not go far enough. But for the developing countries of the Pacific, it is important that India, too, has accepted that it has a responsibility to act. India is already providing some development support for the PICs in areas such as agriculture, health, information technology and energy. Ramendra Prasad of the University of the South Pacific has proposed a useful roadmap to extend this cooperation into the climate change area.<29>  It includes leveraging India’s technological and policy development experience to help Pacific nations build holistic strategies for building climate change resilience, while pursuing renewable energy and sustainable development strategies. Prasad also enjoins India to get involved in supporting climate change mitigation, resilience, and adaptation—noting that China has begun to manoeuvre in this space. The work on adaptation and resilience that is underway at a local level in India may well be useful in supporting cooperation in this field. This includes programs to install ‘cool roofs’ in some cities, the work of some front-line communities to make renewable energy more accessible, and state-level ‘heat action plans’.  It is imperative for India to find ways to engage in the Pacific at an appropriate scale, and a focus on sharing the benefits of these local, community-led initiatives would likely be more successful than ‘macro’ national policy approaches.

Respect is the key to success.

Environmental scientists have often observed that small island communities have adapted their environments and social systems for thousands of years<30> in the face of climate challenges, and that the settlement and continued occupation of these extremely fragile islands has involved working with nature to survive. These ‘nature-based solutions’ have included tree and mangrove planting to stabilise shorelines and help replenish productive land and water systems, building natural fences as protective sea barriers, and consolidating land formations to better support agriculture practices. For external partners, the best way forward is to adopt an engagement approach that respects this wealth of experience, while thinking carefully about how international scientific and engineering knowledge can best complement traditional approaches.  Thoughtful specialists in this area argue for a ‘co-production’ model based on partnerships between international and local actors—an approach that supports the establishment of clear social, environmental and engineering standards; involves clear monitoring and evaluation processes; and provides pathways for investment and support by regional and international organisations. A mature approach involves learning from the longstanding sensitivities that have been on display in the region when it comes to overseas development assistance. Like other developing countries, the PICs bristle at any suggestion that external players are casting themselves as rescuers, or that they are dismissing local perspectives and seeking to impose their own solutions. Some of these island states may be shrinking, but they remain sovereign.


<1> Inia Seruriratu (speech, Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, June 12, 2022). Reported widely, e. g., Pita Ligaiula, “Climate Change a Bigger Threat Than War, Fiji Tells Security Summit,” PINA Pacific News Service, June 13, 2022. <2> Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. <3> Jemima Garett, “China, Media Freedoms in the Pacific, and the Great Australian Silence,” Lowy Institute Interpreter, November 20, 2019. <4> Patricia O’Brien, “The Domestic Politics of Sogavare’s China-Solomons Tryst,” The Diplomat, September 8, 2022. <5> For example, Solomon Islands opposition figures and community leaders. Emanuel Stoakes, “Chinese Police Could Crush Solomon Islands Opposition,” Foreign Policy, August 9, 2022. <6> Simon Kofe, “We Are Sinking,” (speech, Cop26, November 8, 2021). This speech received widespread media coverage. <7> Jon Barnett et al., “Nature-based Solutions for Atoll Habitability,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 377, no. 1854 (July 2022). The authors draw on Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis: Working Group Contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report to note that sea levels are expected to rise by anything between 26 and 114 cm by the year 2100, depending on mitigation scenarios. <8> Neil L. Andrew et al., “Coastal Proximity of Populations in 22 Pacific Island Countries and Territories,” Public Library of Science 14, no. 9 (September 30, 2019). <9> Volker Boege, “Climate Change, Conflict and Peace in the Pacific: Challenges and a Pacific Way Forward,” Peace Review 34, no. 1 (May 6, 2022): 1. <10> Katherine Seto et al., “Climate Change is Causing Tuna to Migrate, Which Could Spell Catastrophe for the Small Islands That Depend on Them,” The Conversation, August 2, 2021. <11> Deloitte. Asia Pacific’s Turning Point: How Climate Action Can Drive Our Economic Future, August 2021. <12> Wesley Morgan, Annika Dean and Simon Bradshaw, A Fight for Survival: Tackling the Climate Crisis Is Key to Security in the Blue Pacific, Climate Change Centre, July 8, 2022. <13>Vanuatu, On Behalf of a Diverse Group of Countries, Tables UN Resolution Calling for World’s Highest Court to Clarify States’ International Legal Duties in the Face of Climate Change,” Center for International Environmental Law, November 30, 2022. <14> “Vanuatu, on Behalf of a Diverse Group of Countries, Tables UN Resolution Calling for World’s Highest Court to Clarify States’ International Legal Duties in the Face of Climate Change” <15> Reported widely, e.g., Andrew Brown and Alex Mitchell, “PM: Climate Change Critical for Our Security,” The New Daily, November 8, 2022. <16> Chris Barrie, “Climate Change Poses a ‘Direct Threat’ to Australia’s National Security. It Must Be a Political Priority,” The Conversation, October 8, 2019. <17> Elaisha Stokes, “The Drought That Preceded Syria’s Civil War Was Likely the Worst in 900 Years,” Vice Blog, March 4, 2016. <18> Kate Higgins, “Peacebuilding and Climate Change in Fiji,” Conciliation Resources. <19> Boege, “Climate Change, Conflict and Peace in the Pacific: Challenges and a Pacific Way Forward” <20> Boege, “Climate Change, Conflict and Peace in the Pacific: Challenges and a Pacific Way Forward” <21> Boege, “Climate Change, Conflict and Peace in the Pacific: Challenges and a Pacific Way Forward” <22> Ian Kemish, “Great Powers and Small Islands: The Democratic Powers Need to ‘Lean In’,” in ORF Raisina Debates, Observer Research Foundation, December 19, 2022. <23> For example, the Vanuatu Foreign Minister’s comments, reported in Adam Morton, “Australia Told to End New Fossil Fuel Subsidies If It Wants Pacific Support to Host Climate Summit,” The Guardian, November 17, 2022. <24> Melissa Clarke, “Climate Change Could Stretch Our Capabilities, Defence Force Chief Speech Warns,” ABC News, September 25, 2019. <25>Climate Change and Disaster Displacement,” UNHCR. <26> “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2021,” UNHCR, June 2022. <27> Anthony Leiserowitz et al., Climate Change in the Indian Mind, 2022, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, October 19, 2022. <28> For a useful summary of France’s continuing importance in the Pacific, see Guy C. Charlton and Xiang Gao, “Why France-US Relations Matter for the Pacific,” The Diplomat, December 23, 2022. <29> Ramendra Prasad, “A Roadmap for India’s Climate Cooperation with Pacific Small Island Developing States,” ORF Issue Brief No. 559, July 2022. ion. <30> Barnett et al., “Nature-based Solutions for Atoll Habitability”
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Ian Kemish

Ian Kemish

Ian Kemish is a former Australian ambassador. He is Expert Associate with the ANU National Security College and an Adjunct Professor with the University of ...

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