Written by Victoria Keener.

The Pacific Islands region spans millions of square miles of ocean, thousands of individual atolls and islands, and dozens of cultures and languages, while its environments reach from the deepest point in the ocean, to alpine summits over 14,000 feet tall. Different climate impacts threaten the communities and ecosystems of the region both now and in the future, including sea level rise and coastal inundation and erosion, shifting and intensifying storms, changing precipitation patterns and freshwater and food security, rising ocean temperatures causing coral bleaching and altering fisheries, and shifting habitats for endemic and endangered species.

On top of these long-term climate threats, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon has dramatic regional impacts on seasonal patterns of rainfall and temperature, and adds a high degree of shorter-term variability from year-to-year. For example, after an El Niño event, islands in the central and west Pacific experience severe drought, while higher ocean temperatures cause widespread coral bleaching and death.

Although Pacific Islands face serious climate risks that may compound and amplify existing environmental and socioeconomic stressors, islanders across the region have demonstrated their commitment to pursuing adaptations based in science, as well as progressive and collaborative policies that plan for and mitigate the future impacts.

While the risk and severity of these impacts vary with individual island geography (e.g. atolls vs. high volcanic islands), governance structure, cultural practices, and access to funding, it is clear that Pacific Islanders are aware of the urgency of climate change, and proactively seek knowledge and data that can help them plan for the impacts across different sectors. While generally under-represented in U.S. politics and national considerations, the Pacific Islands region plays a vital role in climate change policy and advocacy on the international stage, with vocal representation in the UNFCCC, as well as influence on the UN Paris Agreement.

The Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences & Assessments (Pacific RISA) programme is one of ten regional research teams funded by grants from the US NOAA Climate Programme Office to work with decision-makers across academic disciplines to help translate climate knowledge into practical planning. No one organisation alone can address the multitude of climate risks in the region, and Pacific RISA works closely and collaboratively with other regional, federal, and state climate organisations in Hawaii and the US-Affiliated Pacific Islands.

Pacific RISA differs from more traditional scientific research models in that we act as a boundary organisation that builds relationships between academic scientists, resource managers, and policy-makers at multiple levels of government. This has allowed us to work closely and build long-term collaborations with island municipal water departments, planning offices, and land management agencies to co-produce research projects that provide useable results. In addition, we coordinate regional assessments of climate knowledge and risk that are useful to those in higher-levels of governance.

An interdisciplinary team of both physical and social scientists (climatologists, hydrologists, economists, geographers, legal scholars, and psychologists) enables us to engage widely with what has been quantified as an engaged and highly connected group of climate researchers and stakeholders. A network analysis of climate professionals in the Pacific Islands region showed that while there are strong country clusters that would be expected in a highly spatially distributed region, these clusters are also highly interconnected across both sectoral expertise and countries, showing no isolated country or sector.

Part of this connectivity can be seen on the effect of climate change on human migration from and between Pacific Islands. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a US-Affiliated Pacific Island nation comprised of hundreds of atolls with a maximum elevation of 32 feet, making the sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, drought, and storms that communities already experience a prescient sign. As a country that has signed a Compact of Free Association with the U.S., citizens of the RMI are given U.S. passports to travel and work freely within the U.S., which provides a backdrop to investigate why some Marshallese citizens are choosing to leave.

One of our current research projects is quantifying when and why Marshallese in-migrate from outer atolls and to major destinations of Hawaii and Oregon (though migration to Guam and Arkansas is also significant) – through both social science and physical mapping techniques. Through this project, we hope to learn the role that the perception of climate change risk and impacts, or “push” factors, plays in a Marshallese citizen’s decision to migrate, when compared to traditional “pull” factors such as educational opportunities, healthcare, and jobs. As a pilot study, this information can be used to help shape policies for both the RMI and recipient communities, as well as define climate-related and other triggers of movement.

Even as our group and others in the Pacific Islands embrace the work of linking climate science and decision-making more closely, it can be difficult to assess a project’s long-term adaptation success until years later. Another project has linked policy analysis, regional projections of downscaled climate, hydrological modeling, and future scenario planning with land-use change and water availability and planning on the island of Maui, Hawaii. In this case, a Pacific RISA legal scholar analysed state freshwater laws and identified 12 tools including regular planning updates and adopting climate-conscious sustainable groundwater yields that could be incorporated into existing legislation to better adapt to climate change impacts.

By working with the State of Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management (CWRM) to craft those tools, there was interest in incorporating future climate projections into water and land management plans. Physical and social scientists on the team then worked with over 100 freshwater stakeholders on Maui and at the state level to develop four future GIS land-use scenarios that pulled in development, conservation, and agricultural plans to be used to determine groundwater recharge under future projected climate conditions, that can then be reincorporated into land and water policies and plans to build resilience to climate impacts on the freshwater system.

Although Pacific Islands face serious climate risks that may compound and amplify existing environmental and socioeconomic stressors, islanders across the region have demonstrated their commitment to pursuing adaptations based in science, as well as progressive and collaborative policies that plan for and mitigate the future impacts. This includes Hawaii being the first U.S. state to commit to meeting the terms of the Paris Accord independent of the federal government, the signing of the Majuro Declaration, the island of Ta’u in Samoa converting to 100 percent solar power, and the advocacy of the Pacific Islands in pressing for limiting the temperature rise by 2100 to 1.5°C more than pre-industrial levels in the Paris Agreement.

Victoria Keener, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Lead Investigator of the Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences & Assessments (Pacific RISA) programme, and the lead author of the Pacific Islands chapter of the forthcoming 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment. Follow Pacific RISA on Facebook and Twitter (@PacificRISA) for updates on regional climate research, knowledge, and policy. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Pacific Command.

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