Climate Change and Conflict By John R. Campbell  |  07 November, 2023

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Image: LouieLea/

Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) have been widely described as being at the frontline of climate change and accordingly labelled as being highly vulnerable to its effects.  However, when we conduct a deep dive into the situation facing PICTs in the face of climate change, the situation is not so simple.  Indeed, PICTs are likely to be highly exposed to the physical manifestations of climate change such as rising sea levels (with coastal erosion and inundation), increasing tropical cyclone intensity, hotter temperatures, coral reef degradation, the effects of ocean acidification, increasing magnitude and frequency of extreme rainfall events and associated flooding, and on the flip side more and increasingly severe droughts, and changing disease vectors.  These are extremely serious concerns for Pasifika people.

As a result, climate change has been represented as an existential crisis for the countries of the region that may force many of their people to leave their homes and move to ‘safer’ places.  However, there are challenges to this narrative.  They include a rejection of the forced migration scenario that has been painted by international media and other external observers, especially for atoll populations.  Increasing numbers of Pacific Island people are resisting projections that their lands will become uninhabitable.  They point, quite rightly, to the fact that they know what makes their homes liveable and don’t need to be told so by western scientists most of whom have little understanding of the relational ontologies of Pacific people where land (and all its creatures and non-living features) and people are unequivocally bound together as one.  Terms such as vanua, whenua, fenua, fonua and honua (derived from the Proto Austronesian, *banua) express this absolute unity especially in Polynesia but the relationship is pretty much the same in many other parts of the Pacific. Turning one’s back on one’s land would break this bond and no other place could provide the relational elements of habitability that their customary lands provide.  It is not uncommon to hear from Pacific Island people that they are prepared to perish on their land if it does indeed fail to provide material life support as climate change effects worsen.

From a moral perspective, Pacific Island people ask why they should have to move away from a place they so dearly love and which is part of them.  Yes, Pacific people are great migrants and there are large diaspora living in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and the United States.  But an important foundation of migration is knowing that the *banua is always there to return to.  If this is no longer the case migration becomes a much more problematic option.

Another important problem with the narrative of the Pacific climate migrant or climate refugee is the social construction of people who are unable to cope with climate change in the first instance and of people who may create a threat to the populations of the countries they migrate to in the second. In Aotearoa New Zealand eight per cent of the population is of Pasifika ethnicity.  One might imagine that this country would be a logical destination for climate migrants.  However, the levels of both systemic and personal racism towards Pasifika people remain high despite the economic, social and cultural contribution they make to the country.

Part of the difficulty with the notion of climate migrants and refugees is the trope of vulnerability associated with Pacific Islands and their populations.  The reality is that traditionally Pacific people were incredibly resilient despite the supposed limitations of living in restricted island environments with high levels of environmental variability including extremes.  Colonialism and missionisation started a process whereby some of the resilience was eroded and the introduction of capitalism and more recently its modern form of neoliberalism and globalisation have further impinged upon economic, social and cultural practices that contributed to sustainable socio-ecological systems. 

Climate change is bringing, and will continue to bring, challenges for Pacific Island communities that they may have coped with well in the past.  They may indeed continue to do so with considerable hardship.  Herein lies the dilemma for PICTs.  They are faced with a major environmental crisis (which some call existential) which they have done little to cause.  Their GHG emissions are miniscule and even much less when considered on a per capita basis.  Ambitions for development may be thwarted by climate change effects on island ecosystems.  Most effort is likely to be devoted to sustaining the economic, social and cultural status quo in the face of environmental degradation.  Some governments have sought better opportunities for their people to migrate from the danger.  When attending international forums, such as the COPs, they have stressed the existential crisis they are facing from climate change.  For funders, climate change migration may indeed be cheaper than in situ adaptation.  But why should Pacific people migrate if they don’t want to?  So, PIC governments while protesting the existential nature of the crisis they are being dealt are at the same time reasserting their demands that they should have the right to exist on their own land, land which in their cosmology is part of their people and their people are part of it.

It is important that the coming COP28 makes both a much more meaningful attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide financial support for PICTs to build effective in situ adaptation so that those people who wish to stay on their homelands can continue to do so securely. Otherwise, little will change:  another year will have passed, and another COP will be over, the ambition to reduce GHG emissions will remain weak and willingness to compensate for loss and damage to island nations will not emerge.  


Related articles in the COP28 series:

COP, peace and the Pacific Islands (3-minute read)

PCC at COP28: Advocating for phasing out fossil fuels, funding for loss and damage, and peace (3-minute read)

A loss and damage fund in the Pacific? (3-minute read)

This is not climate justice: The Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union (3-minute read)

COP and the unaccounted loss and damage for Pacific Youth (3-minute read)

A new Pacific Diplomacy for COP28 (3-minute read)

Building Peace Amidst Climate Challenges: Insights from Conciliation Resources (3-minute read)

John R. Campbell lives in New Zealand and is currently working on the human dimensions of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction including environmental migration.