Ocean changes illustrate stark reality of climate change

An opinion piece for World Oceans Day, June 2013

Ocean changes illustrate stark reality of climate change

Outlining the reality

With two-thirds of our planet covered by oceans, and living as we do in a land “girt by sea”, Friends of the Earth Australia sees this year’s World Oceans Day (8th June), focusing on the theme of “Oceans and People”, as an opportune moment to highlight the way in which carbon pollution is undermining the life-supporting capacities of our oceans and magnifying their destructive potential.

Ocean warming, ocean acidification and sea level rise, and ocean-related extreme weather events are among the most clearly identifiable impacts.  The effects of ocean warming on coral reefs, as well as on fish migration patterns and local fish stocks, are already well established.  Scientists have alerted us to the fact that oceans absorb far more Co2 than the atmosphere and that several critical thresholds have already been passed, leading to widespread changes in ocean chemistry. With the Arctic already identified as a global hot spot for evidence of the impacts of climate change, the Arctic Monitoring Assessment Program warns that even if Co2 emissions stopped now, it would take tens of thousands of years for the Arctic Ocean chemistry to revert to its pre-industrial composition.

Any rise in sea level is ultimately catastrophic for ocean-based people living in low-lying coastal areas and small islands and atolls, with its threats of shoreline erosion, loss of essential plant life and infrastructure, and salt water inundation of food gardens and fresh water supplies, especially when combined with more frequent and more intense extreme weather events.   The new rubric of “loss and damage” inserted into the international negotiating framework at the Doha round of the UNFCCC in December 2012 seeks to gain recognition for this reality.

No amount of adaptation or resilience building will be adequate to deal with the damage already done because of the carbon profligate lifestyles of people in highly industrialised countries like Australia.   These not only threaten the health of our oceans but implicate us in creating the circumstances that force people in the Pacific and elsewhere to experience major disruption to their lives and livelihoods and to have to face the prospect of abandoning their homes and homelands.  

 On current estimates, around 800,000 people in the Pacific Islands region are already under threat of forced climate-change-related displacement.  Some of these will be able to relocate within their national boundaries, and this is certainly the preferred option of most communities and their leaders.  However, with around 80% of land in the Pacific still under customary ownership and much of it already under stress from population growth and other pressures, negotiating internal resettlement will become increasingly difficult.

A case in point is the NGO-led and –funded Carteret Islands resettlement program on the large island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.  The success of the program has required intense culturally-appropriate negotiations with surrounding local communities.  However, a recent report of a coastal community on Bougainville itself losing land and part of its cemetery to the ocean illustrates the challenges that internal migration is likely to involve.   When it comes to nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, composed entirely of atolls, trans-border resettlement is one of the very few remaining options.

How Australia must respond

Already in what the world’s best scientists, including those leading Australia’s Climate Commission, tell us is the critical decade for cutting carbon emissions, in order to have any chance of preventing runaway climate change and its predictably devastating consequences – and with no possibility of a global agreement taking effect before 2020 – what are Australia’s obligations?

Firstly, we need a clear bipartisan agreement by the two major political parties that anthropogenic climate change is a reality and that, rather than lowering or removing incentives to the uptake of renewable energy, we need strong – and comprehensive – policies to reform and transform our pollution dependent economy and lifestyle.  Such policies will need to aim at much more ambitious levels than the currently proposed targets.  

These targets have been based so far on an agreement within the international negotiations under the UNFCCC to prevent global temperature rises from going beyond 2°C above 1990 levels, on the understanding that any increase beyond this will be extremely dangerous.  However, a number of peak scientific bodies are now warning that, in view of the serious and irreversible damage caused by the already recorded increase of 0.8°C, a 2°C rise would be catastrophic.

Fulfilling the obligation to urgently plan for a drastic reduction in Australia’s carbon emissions will require the kind of leadership which resists appeals to short-term tax payer and corporate financial interests, implicitly denying or avoiding the reality of climate change reality.  The challenge will be to mobilise all sectors of society in a common interest and, as a matter of priority, to promote the investment and employment opportunities of renewable energy uptake.

Secondly, forced climate-change-related displacement can no longer be treated as something that might occur as a longer term possibility, or as requiring a “humanitarian response” in the face of major weather-related disasters.    The Australian government must demonstrate a willingness to engage in the development of new legal and policy frameworks to address this issue, and actively promote such engagement in the international arena.   Involvement in the Nansen Initiative to foster active consideration of resettlement at community, national and international levels is a positive start.

As a matter of justice, policies outlining clear, appropriate and generous resettlement options, developed in consultation with affected communities and their leaders, must be central to Australia’s response to climate change impacts on its island neighbours.   Such policies will be essential to the success of initiatives like the Kiribati government’s “migration with dignity” project.  They need to be established as a matter of urgency, situated within an international human rights – rather than a humanitarian – framework, and with communal and cultural preservation dimensions taken into account.

In addition, such legal and policy frameworks will need to address the issue of marine sovereignty when populations have relocated, so that their former homelands are not recolonised by outside interests.   As Ursula Rakova, director of the Carteret Islands resettlement program remarked, “Even if the last coconut tree is standing on our island, we will still want to conserve our reef.   That’s our cultural connectedness to our island and to our ancestors.”

Wendy Flannery, FoE Climate Frontlines