Pacific Island countries lead the world in reporting on global warming

| March 4, 2021

Pacific islanders didn’t need US President Joe Biden to tell them that climate change poses “an existential threat”. They’ve been warning the West for years.

Climate change communication researcher Tahnee Burgess has examined how Pacific Island journalists reported on global warming between December 2016 and March 2019. The report was commissioned by ABC International Development to monitor how the Pacific islanders themselves were reporting on global warming without “Western narratives coming in”, she says.

The survey results were refreshing, and could provide lessons for Australian media and politicians.

David Holmes, the founder and director of the Climate Change Communication Research Hub and co-author of the report, says that before the project began, he expected that Pacific island journalists would face similar challenges to their counterparts in this country, where the issue is highly politicised, and climate science is often dismissed.

But reporting in the Pacific was more straightforward. All the journalists, and the politicians they quoted, accepted that climate change was real; news about global warming was presented accurately and accessibly.

Burgess says that in most of the 387 articles she examined, complex data was communicated in ways that “incorporated the science and lived experience, to make that information meaningful to readers”.

Getting up to speed

Australia is slowly catching up.

“Our most recent study of last year’s black summer bushfires was our most positive,” Burgess says. During that period, 16% of Australian reporting was connected to climate change, “but 5% of that was denialism. Now, 5% may not sound like a lot, but we’re talking about thousands upon thousands of articles here. It frames the issue as a debate when it should be fact.”

The study period in the Climate Change Communication in the Pacific Islands report included Fiji’s hosting of UN climate talks, the annual Conference of the Parties (known as CoP23), in November 2017. Fiji’s remoteness from northern and western hemisphere nations meant the event was held in Bonn, Germany, where the secretariat for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is based.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama presided – a first for a developing small island state leader.

At CoP23, Fiji launched the Talanoa Dialogue to help participating countries implement their greenhouse gas contributions.

Talanoa is the traditional Pacific practice of sharing stories without judgment, as a way of building consensus and understanding. It was formally adopted by CoP24 in Poland in 2018 “as a way of helping the UN reach its Paris goals, and bringing further transparency to the process”, Burgess says. “It’s awesome seeing traditional knowledge adapted and brought into the global policy stage.”

The Pacific nations have also been instrumental in persuading member states to limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°, as set out in the Paris agreement.

“On the 30th of November 2015, a whole coalition of least-developed countries – LDCs – announced their presence at CoP21,” Dr Holmes explains. “110 countries said that if you don’t agree to 1.5°, you’re committing our nations to annihilation.

“That’s either because we’re on the equator [scientists predict equatorial nations will be in permanent heatwave conditions by 2050 if meaningful cuts to greenhouse gases aren’t made], or we’re smaller states that are going to be swamped by sea level rise. The wealthy countries had to agree in the end.”

Proud of leading the way

Pacific Islanders are proud of their global leadership on climate change, and their journalism reflects this, Burgess says.

“Framing the Pacific as leaders is probably the most common theme we saw through all the pieces,” she says. “And that’s very justified. Through the study period, we saw the Pacific making these incredible statements at international diplomacy events, as well as advocating for their own survival, and showing examples of adaptation mitigation and taking action.

“For example, in Fiji, the majority of their energy has been renewable since 2014, and they’re going to be carbon-neutral by 2036.”

Composite image of a Fiji flag with solar panels and wind turbines.

Fiji has stated its goal to be carbon-neutral by 2036.

Where the Australian media often portrays the Pacific islands as “victims” of rising seas, reporting in the Pacific focused on the strategies individual islands had devised to cope with the environmental challenges posed by global warming. These challenges varied widely across the vast region.

“Some islands are suffering from salinity in their groundwater, and are literally running out of fresh water,” Burgess says. “Other islands are suffering drought. And then you’ve got PNG, where you see mudslides because of the amount of rain that’s coming in. It was interesting to see how Pacific media cover the multitude of climate change impacts, as well as talking about secondary impacts like economics, or cultural shifts.

“They’re doing a better job reporting in-depth science and then contextualising it in a way that makes it accessible than I’ve seen in the Australian media.”

Failure to mention natural disasters

But the report says that only 5% of climate change articles by Pacific Island journalists mentioned natural disasters, such as cyclones. “And in all cases, this was well after the fact, and it was in a very political context,” Burgess says.

So in February 2018, for example, Gita, a category-five cyclone, swept through Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and the Solomon Islands, causing an estimated US$221 million of damage. Most of the articles about Gita didn’t mention that the frequency and intensity of cyclones would likely worsen because of global warming.

A storm whipping plam trees on a tropical island.

“You’ve got thousands of islands across the Pacific, under-resourced media rooms, and overburdened scientists,” Burgess says. “There’s also language barriers between scientists and journalists, and cyclones are time-intensive. You’ve got to get your warnings out as quick as you can. The time to translate that information isn’t necessarily there.”

And this has real-world consequences. “People need to prepare for the intensity of a cyclone. If they shelter in normal homes, for example, and you’ve got a category-five cyclone coming through, it’s not safe. They need to be at a cyclone shelter.”

Her report looked at print journalism, but Burgess acknowledges that radio and Facebook are more influential in the Pacific. “When a cyclone was coming towards Fiji, someone on Facebook put out fake warnings saying it wasn’t that serious, you didn’t have to shelter, but it was a category five. That threatened people’s lives.

“Print media isn’t as dynamic as radio or social media, but having written information from trusted sources, even if it’s then shared online, is really important.”

How was Australia portrayed by Pacific Island reporters?

Unsurprisingly, Australia was criticised for not taking a more active role on the international stage, particularly during CoP23 – but this was only in 4% of articles. During the same period, 5% of articles took a dim view of the Trump administration, which withdrew from the Paris Agreement.

But 22% of articles took a positive view of Australia’s role in the region, particularly its aid programs empowering women. The programs helped women adapt traditional agricultural practices to a changing climate, for example, or trained networks of women to install solar panels in their local villages.

Since the report was written, President Biden has rejoined the Paris Agreement and was likely congratulated in the Pacific press. How the islanders view Australia will depend on the Morrison government’s next move.

Climate Change Communication in the Pacific Islands, by David Holmes and Tahnee Burgess, looks at print journalism in Kiribati, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. In the study period, 378 print articles relating to climate change were sourced from nine island nations including Kiribati, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

This article was written by Tahnee Burgess, the Project Development Officer at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub, and David Holmes, an Associate Professor at the same institution.  It was published by Lens.