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Split image of staghorn coral, Acropora sp., and uninhabited island, Ailuk atoll, Marshall Islands, Pacific 

A ‘Marshall Plan for the Pacific’?

Islands float proposal to adapt to rising seas

© Andre Seale/Marine Photobank

By Bruno Vander Velde

Dec. 9, 2015 — In what is being called a “Marshall Plan” for the Pacific, a coalition of four low-lying island nations on Wednesday announced an ambitious effort to adapt to a changing climate that threatens their very existence.

The initiative, called “Pacific Rising,” would employ a three-pronged campaign of investment, capacity-building and cultural preservation for these islands as they face sea-level rise from the melting of polar ice and from thermal expansion of sea water

The plight of these islands has been highlighted heavily during the ongoing climate talks in Paris, where Pacific Rising was announced. U.S. President Barack Obama even met with Pacific leaders recently, telling the assembled gathering, “I’m an island boy,” referring to his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia.

Yet for all the recognition of the issue, a resolution remains elusive as of this article’s publication, with the issue of loss and damage — which may entail compensation for the countries most vulnerable to climate impacts but which bear little or no responsibility for the carbon emissions causing them — proving a contentious issue in the Paris talks.

The tough part: No one, not even Pacific Rising’s backers, know what a resolution looks like, other than it could require full-scale migration off the islands. What they agree on is that action must start now.

“Imagine living in a place where you know it’s going to go away someday, but you don’t know what day that wave’s going to come over and wash your home away,” said oceans expert Greg Stone, an executive vice president at Conservation International and an adviser to the government of Kiribati, one of the countries in the coalition. “It’s a disaster we know is going to happen.”

So what is happening in the Pacific?

A disaster in slow motion is unfolding for some 30,000 low-lying islands and islets in the Pacific:

  • Higher and warmer waters are magnifying the destructive power of tropical storms.
  • Storm surges are eating away at coastal lands and damaging arable land needed for food crops.
  • Invading seawater is contaminating the islands’ fragile supply of drinking water.

“For every inch of sea-level rise, these islands lose 10 feet of their freshwater table to saltwater intrusion,” Stone explained. “So it’s not just about the day the water finally goes over the island; it’s also about the day that there’s just not enough water left and everyone has to move off the island.”

Further reading: Expert warns of hidden impacts of climate change

That has already begun to happen, with islanders in the nation of Kiribati being forced to move from more remote areas to urban centers such as Tarawa, which has seen its population double in the past 20 years, putting greater pressure on the city’s infrastructure and social services. Meanwhile, Tarawa itself is in dire straits, with predictions that the island will be mostly inundated by 2050.

How is this issue playing out in the Paris climate talks?

The stated aim of the talks — to reduce emissions sufficiently to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, is not enough, the islands’ leaders say, urging a more ambitious target of 1.5 degrees to prevent them from what has already started to happen in these places.

 It’s the moral challenge of our time. 

As Enele Sopoaga, the prime minister of Tuvalu, said at the talks last week: “Tuvalu’s future … is already bleak [and] any further temperature increase will spell the total demise of Tuvalu. No leader in this room carries such a level of worry and responsibility. Just imagine you are in my shoes, what would you do?”

Further reading: Melting ice a ticking time bomb for Pacific islands

The prospect of reparations to island countries for the cost of adapting to climate change has caused a rift among parties to the climate negotiations and raised fiendishly complex ethical and legal questions.

“It’s the moral challenge of our time,” Conservation International’s Stone said. “It’s like, we live in a neighborhood, you had a huge party that got out of control, and you accidentally burned down your neighbor’s house. The next morning, you see it, and you ask your neighbor, Oh, that’s so sad — what are you going to do now?”

Enter Pacific Rising, which offers a way forward without disputing the cause or assigning blame for the crisis.

What is Pacific Rising?

Pacific Rising is a strategy, funding and development organization proposed by leaders of four island nations that constitute the Coalition of Atoll Nations on Climate Change (CANCC) — Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu. The most important feature of Pacific Rising, Stone says, is that it’s time-bound and money-bound.

“These countries’ approach is, We’ll put our money in first, and we want the rest of the world to put money in, and that way it’s not limitless,” he said. “Because the problem with loss and damage is that all the developed countries that have the money would worry, Will the claims ever end? And what are we going to be charged?”

The organization aims to spur a collective global effort on the order of the scale and ambition of the European Recovery Program — known as the “Marshall Plan” — that helped to rebuild the economies of Europe after World War II while looking past the responsibility for the war. Funds would be used to invest in planning for how to adapt to the coming crisis — “a climate adaptation strategy meant to augment national development plans for each country facing the threat,” Stone says.

How does Pacific Rising work?

Pacific Rising would work on three fronts to preserve lives, livelihoods and cultures in the Pacific:

1) Technology: Investing in renewable energy, Internet access and as-yet undefined systems for raising coastal elevation and shoreline protection 

2) Enterprise: Fostering partnerships for sustainable business initiatives at local and national levels in order to bolster the resilience of island economies in transition

3) Culture: Education, training, health and maintaining cultural heritage amid a possible mass migration of people

The four founding member nations are a collection of flyspeck atolls in the middle of the ocean — yet they control vast, resource-rich waters that hold deep-sea minerals and the world’s largest source of tuna. The business-oriented approach to Pacific Rising was purposeful, Stone says, to maintaining these natural resources. 

“Inaction would lead to high costs and instability in this part of the planet,” he said. “And the world wants stability in parts of the world where we’re going to be getting resources. So you have to come at this from the business case, because that’s how you get investors’ attention.”

“If you look ahead 50 years, a country like Kiribati could become the first aqueous nation,” Stone continued, raising the possibility of migration. “That is, they own this big patch of ocean, and they administer it from elsewhere.” 

The likelihood of island people becoming climate refugees informed the need for investing in education and job training, Stone says. “If people from Kiribati arrive on the shores of Australia in 20 years, they want to be trained and welcomed into society,” he said.

Can these islands simply ‘build’ their islands higher?

It’s not that simple, Stone says.

“There has been no consolidated analysis of island-building technologies, techniques and costs,” he said.

“There are geomorphologists who think sand can be pumped onto the atoll; it would take you about a year, but you could probably build it up 100 feet. Then it takes two years for the seawater to leach out, and then you get a new home for the next 500 years.”

“But the Kiribati folks are saying, What about our ancestors? They’re buried in the ground; we don’t want to leave them down there for two or three years — and what would this even cost us? No one has actually parsed that out.”

To start, Stone says, a study needs to be done on existing technologies and costs related to island-building, and how that fits into the local context. Only once there is something for experts to start with, he says, can sound decisions be made on feasibility.

Why the focus on culture?

Cultural preservation is imperative to the Pacific Rising initiative, Stone says.

“Kiribati has a 12,000-year-old culture that doesn’t have a written language,” he explained. “Most Pacific island communities transmit information through social contact. They have to be together to tell stories, to remember: They weave history into mats, they put it into the structure of buildings, they put celestial navigation information into the tops of meeting houses.”

Dance is a major part of information transmission in these island nations, Stone says.

“One dance in Kiribati tells the story of the first day that an airplane landed on the island — not the first day that foreigners came, but the first day that a plane actually landed there. During the performance, the dancers all point — ‘It came from that direction.’ And they’d tell how it landed, and they’d tell how people came out to greet it while wearing masks — they recount the whole thing.”

 If you knew something would happen in your life and you had 10 years to get ready for it, wouldn’t you do that? 

“It’s almost like crowd-sourcing your history. I’m sure the community came together for a week and said, ‘What do you remember? What did you see?’ And then they put it all together and ‘stored’ it in a dance, and then you can’t change the dance. So it’s almost better than one person writing a narrative.”

This cultural knowledge, along with these islanders’ empirical knowledge of the ocean — “they have knowledge about the ocean, their lands, their fish that we don’t have,” Stone says — could be lost if forced migration isolates these people from each other over a long period of time.

What happens next?

The coalition has submitted the paperwork to create a nonprofit organization in the United States, Stone says, and publicly announced the launch of Pacific Rising at the climate negotiations in Paris. Now, they are looking for funding outside of the usual multilateral-donor circles.

“They know private-sector funding is there,” Stone said. “If you want to bring the world to bear on a problem, you have to engage foundations and corporations.” 

As for solutions? “This plan doesn’t assume a solution,” Stone says. “I’ve been asked in Kiribati, What is the solution? And the honest answer is: Nobody knows. This is a plan that kind of learns and adapts as it goes forward, filling knowledge gaps and enabling policies to change.”

Stone is adamant that it must start now.

“I think it’s probably 15-20 years away. There will still be land there, but there will have to be something happening to ensure that these nations will continue to exist, that the culture will continue to exist.”

“How often in life do you have this ability to plan ahead for? If you knew something would happen in your life and you had 10 years to get ready for it, wouldn’t you do that, or would you sit on your hands and wait for it to hit you?”

Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director.