Vanua in the age of climate change

| December 8, 2023

Great power rivalry and climate-induced migration are frequently discussed in discourse about the effects of climate change in the Pacific, but we must not forget the implications for human security. As Pacific Islanders are increasingly confronted by the realities of climate change, the preservation of cultural and gender security is central in the region’s approach to climate adaptation.

Rising sea levels, tropical cyclones and coastal erosion have in some cases threatened whole Pacific communities, including villages in the Solomon Islands, Fiji and the Carteret Islands. Pacific peoples have responded in many ways including through inter- and intra-state migration. Fiji last year introduced guidelines to assist the relocation of communities impacted by sudden-onset climate-induced disasters such as cyclones, and longer-term climate effects including droughts.

What has accentuated the phenomenon of climate-induced migration by Pacific Islanders are cascading and compounding climate risks. Not only do impacts from climate-amplified hazards like cyclones drive disasters in the moment, but they occur concurrently with and add to broader pressures facing communities—including food and economic insecurity.

For example, communities that are dependent on primary industries are highly vulnerable to climate change as seen in Tuvalu where fisheries contributed to 5% of the country’s GDP in 2014. Climate change has increased water temperatures in the tropical Pacific, leading to the migration of some tuna species. Reduced tuna stocks impact the economic livelihood of fishing communities and is a potential push factor for the relocation of Pacific citizens.

The threat of increased climate-induced migration in recent years has resulted in a range of security challenges. The World Bank estimated in 2021 that 216 million people may be displaced within their own countries by 2050.

In mainstream Western discourse especially, a securitised perspective of climate-induced migration has emerged reinforcing the association between migration and future threats to national security. The unintended consequence of this approach is to exacerbate fears of migrants as threats to social cohesion driving a border restrictive approach—well in advance of significant climate-related people movements taking place.

As Pacific Island countries grapple with the implementation of appropriate responses to climate change, great power competition has become salient within the region. Confronted by a range of developmental challenges, Pacific Island countries have turned to regional assistance in adapting to climate change. China’s footprint has increasingly grown in the Pacific through the provision of aid and technical assistance.

In response to China’s growing regional role, the US and its allies and partners are likewise increasing their influence in the region. Both the US and South Korea this year hosted summits with Pacific Island leaders, with discussions involving climate change. In November, Australia upgraded its bilateral relationship with Tuvalu through the Falepili Union treaty. Along with providing a mobility pathway for 280 Tuvaluans to study, work and live in Australia annually, the treaty effectively provides a veto over any possible security pact between China and Tuvalu.

This emphasis in Western discourse on geopolitical competition and the threat of climate-induced migration has marginalised the human security implications of climate change.

An alternative way of assessing climate risks for the Pacific is the concept of relational security, which foregrounds both the material and non-material impacts of climate change as a concern shared by many Pacific Islanders.

For example, the term ‘vanua’ from the iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) culture highlights the way in which people are an extension of the land, and land an extension of the people. Relations to the environment, social bonds, spirituality and ancestors are key to indigenous Fijian identity and a motivation for some communities, such as those on Serua Island, to stay in place rather than opting to relocate.

The gendered dimension of climate change is likewise traditionally marginalised when it comes to understanding impacts in the Pacific. Many Pacific Island societies, which are patriarchal in nature, suffer from high rates of domestic violence compared to other societies. When the impacts of climate change are added to the equation, existing inequities and marginalisation due to gender are exacerbated.

Research shows that during and after disasters Pacific women are at a greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence including rape, exploitation and assault. This often arises in instances of climate-induced displacement with overcrowding and unsafe living conditions in temporary accommodation leading to the increased exposure of women to harassment and violence (along with limited access to reproductive health services).

Vulnerabilities based on gender need to be considered in post-settlement situations including with respect to the impact of the Falepili Treaty. According to research done by Monash University, 33% of migrant and refugee women in Australia experienced some form of domestic and family violence. Pacific Islander women relocating due to climate change may easily become part of this abysmal statistic.

Ensuring that the impacts of climate change on human security, such as cultural and gender security, are appropriately considered is critical. COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, is an ideal opportunity for countries to engage multilaterally with these human security issues. The recognition of the complex dimensions of gendered impacts and cultural identity in the COP28 declaration on climate, relief, recovery and peace is welcome.

While the loss of cultural heritage due to climate-induced relocation can never be completely recovered, the provision of non-economic loss and damage is one way for large fossil fuel emitters such as Australia to jointly compensate Pacific Islanders. The early decision at COP28 to operationalise the loss & damages fund was very encouraging—though its success will depend on future investments that are proportionate to the significant gap developing countries face. The importance of loss and damage for the Pacific Island countries was highlighted in the Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility released after this year’s Pacific Island Forum.

Discussions at COP28 should consider ways a gender-sensitive approach can be mainstreamed in the Pacific’s response to climate change. Understanding the impact of climate-induced disasters on women and girls, including the increased incidence of sexual and gender-based violence, needs more attention and research.

That is key to ensuring women are not merely positioned as passive victims in climate-induced disasters. Community-led policies relating to climate relocation which acknowledge the part played by women need to be prioritised. In the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in 2015, ni-Vanuatu women played a critical role in collectivising, leadership, and as entrepreneurs and innovators.

As climate change increasingly impacts the Pacific Island countries, the consequences for both traditional and human security need to be addressed. COP28 is an ideal opportunity to discuss human security considerations relating to climate change in the Pacific, with the preservation of gender and cultural security much-needed areas of focus.

This article was published by The Strategist.