climate justice: don’t stick your head in the sand ‘cause the tides ‘a comin’ in

carteret islandsOne of the benefits of being rich is the possibility of luxury.  So much do we, in affluent nations, count on the benefits of industrialisation:  air conditioning, driving, flying and owning a multitude of manufactured items, most of which are powered by and transported by greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels.  We seldom stop to think about the global price of that affluence.  Our luxury comes at a price to the global climate that for many people is literally a matter of life and death, of homelessness and loss of entire cultures.  The island nations of the world are already starting to pay dearly for our luxury.

The central principle of climate justice is that all peoples are entitled to a fair share of environmental space.  Australia emits the most greenhouse gases per capita in the world. In fact, based on a per-capita measure of equitable share of greenhouse gas emissions at a level that would stabilise climate change, Australians are currently taking up 18 times greater than our fair share of atmospheric space. To some extent we are responsible for the plight of our pacific neighbours.

The International Panel on Climate Change predicts temperature increase, sea-level rise, extended droughts, shorter but more intense seasons, and more frequent extreme weather events, such as cyclones[1]. For the pacific islands, the most immediate concerns are food and fresh water security, vector borne diseases, more cyclones and flooding of greater intensity. Amongst the 22 nations across the Pacific some islands are less than 2 meters above sea-level. This limits options to move to less effected areas, when your island home is small enough to see one coastline from the other.

Tides now contaminate groundwater, making it undrinkable and too saline to support plants[2]. In Tuvalu families now grow Taro in metal buckets due to soil salinity[3].   In February 2004 Tuvalu experienced high tides that made the entire island awash with shallow water. Water contamination is also occurring in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)[4]. This is exacerbated by the drought-like conditions as rainfall has become less reliable. Droughts in 1998 in FSM, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands and Fiji have been attributed to changed weather in the region[5].

Subsistence agriculture, fishing and tourism is the basis of economy for many islands.  All are threatened by coral bleaching as a result of warming oceans[6].  The effects of sea-level rise on topography are exacerbated by coral bleaching as the degraded reef systems, particularly around atolls, increasingly fail to protect islands from storm surges and king tides[7].

Loss of land is probably the most obvious impact associated with small island states. The IPCC predicts a global rise in sea level at an average of 5mm per year[8].  Loss of territory from sea-level rise and impact on subsistence food systems has already forced some families in Tuvalu, the Duke of York atolls, and in the Cateret Islands to relocate[9].

There is growing concern about the increase in vector borne diseases as a result of climate change.  Malaria and cholera are linked to warmer weather patterns, with recent outbreaks in FSM and the  Marshall Islands[10].  In the highlands of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands there have been reports of malaria in areas where previously it was too cold for mosquitoes to survive.  In 2003 the World Health Organisation estimated up to 160,000 deaths per year are attributable to global warming; largely due to expansion of malaria and malnutrition[11].  These figures are expected to double by 2020.

Debates on climate refugees have increased in the past year with predictions that climate change could lead to 140 million environmental refugees by 2050, 70m in the Asia Pacific region[12].  The International Red Crescent Society recorded 58% of peoples displaced in 2000 were due to environmental reasons[13].  In 2001, 170 million people were affected by disasters, 97% of which were climate related[14].  All of this creates a compelling argument for the recognition of environmental refugees, yet the Australian government has so far refused to review immigration laws or give special consideration to Tuvaluans who have sought migration rights to Australia.

The impacts of climate change in the Pacific are thus multiple. Perhaps worst of all, the cultural history  of the most diverse geographical area of the world will be lost as people are forced to leave increasingly uninhabitable islands.

At the 2003 World Summit on Sustainable Development, Pacific Island nations made strong calls for renewable energy technology and funding of research and development to assist island nations to convert to renewable energy[15].  Yet the Australian government continues to support a coal-based industrial future, last year de-funding of the Australian Cooperative Research Centre on Renewable Energy (ACRE).  Simultaneously they announced additional funding for research into geosequestration (ie. burying excess carbon under the ground) taking valuable funding away from preventative technologies.

The global consequence 150 years of industrial growth is a climate change burden shared by all nations.  It is internationally recognised that developing countries have less capacity to adapt to climate change impacts.  It is our responsibility, the responsibility of our government, to clean up the mess our luxury has left behind it.  While the Australian Government seems to literally have it’s head in the sand on climate change, one has to ask if things would be different if we were in the same boat as Tuvalu?


Stephanie Long is FoE Australia’s Climate Justice Campaign coordinator

Kim Stewart is a radio journalist and student in the faculty of environmental studies at Griffith University.

[1] IPCC (2001) Third Assessment Report: Policy Makers Summary

[2] Barnett, J. and Adger, N (2001) Climate Dangers and Atoll Countries.  Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research Working Paper 9.

[3] Price, Tom (2002) The Canary is Drowning. Available at

Moore Ede, P. (2003) Come Hell or High Water.  Alternatives Journal Winter 2003, 29:1.

[4] H.E. Leo A. Falcam, President of the Federated States of Micronesia (2002) Statements by World Leaders.  Available at

[5] pers com Jim Salinger, Senior Climate Scientists for National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)

[6] Torrice Productions (2000) Rising Waters and Moore Ede, P. (2003) Come Hell or High Water.  Alternatives Journal Winter 2003, 29:1.

[7] Pene le Fale(2000) in Rising Waters. Torrice Productions

[8] IPCC (2001) Third Assessment Report:  Policy Makers Summary

[9] Maclellanm, Nic (2001) Climate Change in the Pacific.

Pacific Island Report May 27 2003, Pacific News Bulletin vol 18, no7 July 2003

[10] ACFOA (2001) Development Issues Paper – Australia and the Pacific: Update on current trends and issues.

[11] Doyle, A.  (2003) 160,000 Said Dying Yearly From Global Warming.  Reuters October 1 2003

[12] Simms, A.  (2003) “Unnatural Disasters”.  The Guardian. Wednesday 15 October 2003.

Myers, N (1993) “Environmental Refugees in a Globally Warmed World”. BioScience V. 43 No. 11 Dec

17 WWF Feb 21, 2004

[13] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2001) World Disasters Report.

[14] Simms, A.  (2003) “Unnatural Disasters”.  The Guardian. Wednesday 15 October 2003.

[15] SPREP (2002) Pacific WSSD Regional Assessment.  Available at



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