Three years on from the IPCC 1.5ºC report, Pacific voices still leading

By Maia Germano | January 2021

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report of 1.5°C Global Warming outlines the possibility that some low-lying atolls will become uninhabitable by 2030 and submerged by 2100. Pacific Islands have contributed the least to the causes of climate change but are facing the most immediate and direct impacts because of it. Cyclone Yasa which wreaked havoc across Fiji last month is just the latest example.

Damaged building on Vanua Levu, Fiji after Cyclone Yasa (Sheldon Chanel; The Guardian, 2020)

I am a non-indigenous ally supporting stories from those on the frontlines of climate change in our Pacific region. At the time the IPCC 1.5ºC report was released, I was an undergraduate student researching climate displacement in Pacific Islands. I found that climate displacement was a topic where dominant narratives have largely framed Pacific people as climate refugees and passive victims, as opposed to resilient communities with lived experience, fighting for their survival and calling for greater action.  How climate change is talked about can skew the perceptions of outsiders, including myself, away from the experiences voiced by those on the frontlines, causing a ripple effect beyond the direct environmental consequences of climate change alone. 

We are seeing the language of crisis play out with some governments declaring climate emergencies and others deliberately choosing empty words. Pacific leaders fought for the ‘climate change crisis’ to be included at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum, whereas Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison fought to have the word ‘crisis’ replaced by the word ‘reality.’ As Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said in response, ‘watered-down climate language has real consequences.’ 

With this in mind, I chose to focus my Honours thesis on how the IPCC, the most authoritative voice on climate change, talks about Pacific Islands. I found that Pacific Islands are talked about in terms of smallness and sea level rise. The IPCC focuses on physical impacts at a global level over localised impacts on culture and communities, and references local knowledge as mostly supporting, rather than leading responses. 

In a similar way to how the IPCC positions ‘neutral’ science and ‘alternative’ local knowledge as mutually exclusive, the IPCC separates policymakers and local communities already adapting to everyday climate impacts. Pacific leaders were influential advocates for limiting global warming to 1.5°C and Pacific people are voicing their vulnerability by leading Greenpeace’s report ‘Te Mana o Te Moana: The State of the Climate in the Pacific 2020,’ using the findings of the IPCC 1.5ºC report to speak to the urgency of the existential threats they are facing.

The atoll island nation of Tuvalu (Kim Shore; Climates, 2016)

While the IPCC 1.5ºC report acknowledges the resilience of Pacific Islands and shows a better understanding of climate displacement realities than previous reports, publications like this should be careful not to normalise loss of land as inevitable. The global community shouldn’t need to see island homes disappear to start noticing climate change. People living in Pacific Islands are already telling us their stories and we need to listen. At the moment, Torres Strait Islanders are taking the Australian Government to the United Nations for not taking climate change action, in a landmark case fighting for the right to their island homes. 

In the lead up to COP26 in less than a year’s time, pressure is mounting on high emitting nations to commit to emissions reduction targets of net zero by 2050, as outlined in the 1.5ºC report. The UN Climate Ambition Summit, held at the end of 2020, marked five years since the Paris Agreement with speaking roles given to the Presidents of the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Nauru and Kiribati. Leaders of higher emitting nations in the Pacific region were noticeably missing from the line-up. Again, we see Pacific leaders and communities taking the lead and putting pressure on Australia to take responsibility for its lack of climate action and make commitments to reduce emissions. 

With the IPCC’s urgent warnings for 2030 less than a decade away, it has never been more important for Australia, as a Pacific nation and contributor to climate change, to follow the Pacific’s lead, listen to their stories and take climate action.

Maia is a student currently living in Naarm (Melbourne), having recently finished her Honours thesis in International Studies at RMIT. She’s interested in researching the intersections of human rights and climate change, and is about to start a Master of Geography at the University of Melbourne.

Maia has chosen to publish and license her piece under Creative Commons licence CC BY 4.0. So we encourage you to republish her work (in part or in full) for free, online or in print. Just remember to acknowledge the author in line with CC BY 4.0.

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