Climate Change and Conflict By Volker Boege | 05 March, 2022
Tiny Pacific Atolls Battered by King Tides as IPCC Makes Big Waves
Photo credit: Shutterstock
On 25 February, the government of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) declared a State of Emergency in the Atolls Constituency of the region. On 28 February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest climate science report. While the state of emergency in Bougainville was hardly noticed internationally, the release of the IPCC report drew comprehensive international attention (although less than it deserved, because it was overshadowed by the war in Ukraine). Both events are closely linked. The state of emergency is a real-life expression of what the IPCC report deals with in a scientific way, and the IPCC report provides an explanation of what is happening on the Bougainville atolls.
The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) was forced to declare the state of emergency because the people on the atolls “are currently suffering the aftermath of the King tide that swept across all the outer low lying islands throughout the Atolls Constituency”. People on the atoll islands of Nissan, Mortlock, Fead, Nukumanu (Tasman), Nuguria and the Carterets “are severely affected, with their homes, gardens and properties now underwater”. The emergency started in December last year, when a first wave of king tides battered the atolls, low-lying areas of mainland Bougainville and the neighbouring island of Buka, with the sea running into swamp taro food gardens and even taking several houses on Iangain island in the Carterets atoll. The United Nations said in December that “as many as 7,000 residents had to move their homes due to flooding from king tides”. In fact, the Bougainville atolls “are considered to be among the most threatened parts of the Pacific from climate change and sea level rise”. Meanwhile people “are going hungry with the strong winds and king tides destroying food gardens”. These food gardens are the basis of the subsistence economy of atoll communities. The food security of the people is severely threatened, and they are dependent on food support from the outside. The ABG and the government of PNG have promised to send relief supplies to the atolls.
Experience shows, however, that government emergency responses are slow and insufficient. And so is long-term planning. In the light of the current disaster, PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape declared that, in addition to the provision of relief supplies, his government will at the same time be “looking at a permanent solution that could mean relocating islanders to mainland Bougainville.” Government plans to relocate Carterets islanders go back as far as October 2007, when the PNG government allocated 2 million kina (800,000 USD) for a ‘Carterets Relocation Programme’; over the following years more plans and programmes were made, without any relocation actually happening. This is why the community leaders on the Carterets took things into their own hands and established the NGO Tulele Peisa (which in the local language means ‘Sailing the waves on our own’) which organised the resettlement of Islanders to mainland Bougainville. Tulele Peisa’s activities drew considerable international attention, gained the support of donor agencies and the Catholic Church in Bougainville, which provided land for resettlement. Tulele Peisa successfully relocated families to new homes, starting in 2009. However, its ‘Carterets Integrated Relocation Programme’ was up against considerable obstacles, from lack of funding through problems in the relationship with state institutions to challenges in getting access to sufficient suitable resettlement land and conflicts with recipient communities. Therefore, small numbers of people have been resettled so far; most Carterets Islanders are still stuck on their atoll today, exposed to the devastating king tides and other effects of climate change.
The ABG’s emergency declaration of 25 February is referencing the resettlement of the Carterets Islanders when it posits that the atolls people “are the very first environmental refugees in the world due to rising sea levels and the dilemma they face in the islands is no longer a local issue but has become a global issue”. In fact, in the international media the Carterets Islanders had been presented as the world’s first environmental refugees. Even if the term ‘environmental refugees’ is contested these days, it is a fact that people are forced to leave their home islands and to relocate elsewhere – and this indeed has become a global issue.
This is confirmed by the latest IPCC report which focuses on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change. The over 3,600 page document addresses the destructions climate change is already causing and is going to cause in the near future, and what this means for societies and the environment globally, and it discusses options for adaptation and necessary changes in climate policy and governance. The report makes clear that things will get worse everywhere on earth, but it also highlights that low-lying island nations and islands, like the atolls in the Bougainville region, are set to be hardest hit and will be faced with truly existential challenges, due to unavoidable sea-level rise and extreme weather events. People there are among the most vulnerable, with constrained options for in situ adaptation. Hence the danger of forced displacement and the need to relocate. It is predicted that some atolls will become totally uninhabitable by 2050, if not earlier.
At a webinar organised by the Australian Climate Council on 3 March, Professor Brendan Mackey from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, a coordinating lead author of the IPCC report, explained that extreme weather events, like the king tides on the Bougainville atolls or the current extreme high rain fall and floods at the Australian east coast, will increase in frequency, severity and duration in the near future, posing existential threats to island nations, coastal zones and settlements. Such events will hit much harder than previous IPCC assessments indicated, due to their cascading, compounding and aggregate effects. Against this background, Mackey demanded a ‘step change’ in adaptation – in fact, it is imperative for achieving climate justice to step up the support for the most affected people, like those on the atolls of Bougainville.
P.S.: While I’m writing this blog entry, large parts of my home town Brisbane in Australia are flooded due to extreme rainfall which lasted for days (the ‘rain bomb’), and rain and thunderstorms are still battering Queensland and New South Wales. The IPCC report makes clear that these are not ‘once in a century’ events anymore (as politicians like to say, blaming ‘Mother Nature’), but are going to become more and more frequent. The plight of the Bougainville atolls signals what is on the cards for many other regions and people in the world.
Volker Boege is Toda Peace Institute's Senior Research Fellow for Climate Change and Conflict. Dr. Boege has worked extensively in the areas of peacebuilding and resilience in the Pacific region. He works on post-conflict peacebuilding, hybrid political orders and state formation, non-Western approaches to conflict transformation, environmental degradation and conflict, with a regional focus on Oceania.