Living with Climate Change in Polynesia

By Matthew Arnold

You need to realize that all of our problems and thus everything we do here is linked to climate change
— Samoan government official

Traveling around Samoa and Niue this summer taught me that you don’t need the news to stay informed on climate change.  There are no Twitter feeds that revel in the warming of winter months and thank climate change for it, or that express alarm during unusual blizzards and question whether climate change is real at all.  You need only to walk out your door in order to see how interwoven climate change is in all aspects of life.  In the span of an hour-long drive on Upolu, you will see solar panels on the roofs of small homes, rain catchment sites and water tanks, sea walls spanning bay areas, waves crashing up to the edges of restaurants, plots for growing taro in every yard, as well as signs announcing the presence of a myriad of local and international environmental NGOs. 

Jump in the water off the coast of Niue and there’s a chance you’ll see bleached coral flats and a notable absence of sea life compared to the next lagoon over.  On the road there are entire stretches of moldering walls and battered homes left abandoned since the last cyclone.  In small communities like Niue’s, most people are fearful of the fact that cyclones are predicted to only grow in intensity although they are still rebuilding from when Heta leveled Apia in 2004.   

Ancient coral fields, Niue, Summer 2017

Ancient coral fields, Niue, Summer 2017

Overcoming the resulting economic burdens is an increasingly steep hill to climb.  Local businesses are constantly adapting to climate variability.  Important fish stocks are migrating out of reach as a result of changing temperatures in the water.  Droughts are occurring for longer stretches of time although the area’s leading export and staple crop, taro, begins to wither in as little as two weeks without rain.  Inconsistent rainfall patterns are leading to less predictable outbreak periods of vector-borne diseases such as Dengue and Zika. 

Here, climate change confronted me every day, which convoluted my research on differentiating broad development from climate change specific financing.  As an intern embedded with the UNDP, I conducted an institutional ethnographic project involving interviews with the Samoan and Niuean governments, NGOs and funding agencies, those involved in economic development initiatives, among others.  Climate finance vehicles, particularly vertical funds such as the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), are positioned to play a significant role in helping the world succeed at preventing the more catastrophic effects that may result from climate change.  There are risks associated with both separating and blending together climate change and development objectives.  On one hand, separation of the two may yield more focused approaches to climate change needs specifically.  However, there are also co-benefits for development when addressing climate change, and separation may limit the ability to leverage those linkages.

Where does Climate Change start and end?

In addition to the challenge of disentangling climate change and development and determining when to keep them separate and when to mesh them together for synergistic effects, it became clear early on that defining what the effects of climate change are can be a slippery slope.  In a conversation with a Samoan government official, we discussed the growing problem of pollution in Samoa’s rivers and streams.  Not only were there greater volumes of pollutants in the water, but greater numbers of people were now polluting, and they were dumping closer to the river sources in the island interior.  My initial reaction was that this was an education problem and I probed for evidence: perhaps an environmental NGO or an awareness-building program recently closed out or lost funding?  Has the population been growing?  Urbanization?  No, no, and no.  The official proceeded to explain that the cause was sea-level rise, which is increasing at nearly double the global average rate in the region.  Initially I was perplexed, how could sea-level rise impact the occurrence of pollution inland?

Facing coastal inundation, people have been incrementally moving into the interior and growing their crops farther inland along the river banks.  As one owner of beach fales explained to me, “We’re losing our beaches and there is no money to rebuild them.  The tourists will stop coming so we’re getting more land [away from the coast].  How many more years before this beach is completely gone?”  The vicious cycle thus occurs: this form of slow displacement results in more people moving inland and polluting rivers and streams, many of which empty into the ocean, further contaminating and threatening the fragile reefs and marine life along the coast, thereby attracting fewer tourists who have less beach real estate to visit, and causing more locals to look inland for income. 

Although this particular explanation to the problem of polluted water catchment zones is largely anecdotal, if it holds true then what initially appeared to be a problem unrelated to climate change has become an issue with adapting to sea-level rise.  My conversations with other government officials yielded a multitude of parallel narratives.  Such blurred lines between adaptation and development have led me on a search to clearly define differences between the two and comparing instances where they have been implemented in parallel approaches and where they have been integrated, e.g. the results yielded from the construction of seawalls vs. coastal mangroves, adaptation opportunities in economic growth sectors such tourism, agriculture, among others.

In climate change mitigation, this includes exploring the incongruence of global and localized priorities: All Polynesian states (including New Zealand) contribute just over 0.02% of global CO2 emissions yet their remains an outsized focus on emissions curbing projects in the region.  As a result, the global focus on emissions reduction tends to supersede some of the most prevailing localized issues in Polynesia, such as energy access, energy security, and high energy costs.  Mitigation projects centered on renewable energy growth inherently also benefit access, security, and sometimes cost. However, they may not go so far in those categories as other energy projects that do not account for mitigation.

Island of Namua, Samoa, Summer 2017

Island of Namua, Samoa, Summer 2017

I first became interested in climate change by Al Gore’s inspiring 2006 An Inconvenient Truth.  Subsequent years of informally following climate change led me to fully pursue it through Fletcher’s climate change program to gain formal training on what I perceive to be this generation’s greatest struggle.  All of this exposure, however, did not quite prepare me for what was ultimately cemented into my mind this summer.  Climate change is not a future problem, it has been happening, and will continue to happen with increasing force.  Climate change is not a slow problem.  As my time on these embattled islands demonstrated to me, the effects of climate change have already taken hold, and are escalating, at an alarming pace.  The problem of climate change can no longer stay in a box as its consequences are visible everywhere.  Much like the competing priorities of keeping rivers clean and escaping sea-level rise, can localized climate change needs stay in step with what is the most universal challenge we have to solve?