I’ve been ruminating on the release of the I.P.C.C. Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15) in the past few days.
I watched the live press conference from a lecture room at the National University of Samoa, on the island of Upolu, Samoa, right at the heart of the vast Pacific Ocean.
I forced my students to listen to the press conference, to watch as the co-chairs of the IPCC framing the negative in a more palatable way, so that political egos of some countries and the leanings of the high emitters were sufficiently pacified, but in a manner which did not compromise the science or alarm the public.
Having followed the discussions closely thereafter, I was encouraged by the collective shock of my learned friends at the outcome of the Report, and dismayed that this was not already apparent to some. The science has been clear for many years, and for the IPCC to come out and say – “species extinction” means they have gone beyond reasonable doubt in the face of science to backup such a statement conclusion.
Is that what the world requires? Over 6000 references and 42,000 comments from scientists and experts to listen?
“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.
I spoke to Pörtner last year at the IPCC Working Group II office in Bremen, Germany and after being informed that we already had incidences of mass fish kills in Vanuatu and Fiji recorded in 2016, he was concerned, because according to him, that is just the beginning – as the impacts of rising temperatures are exhibited by nature in such events. The Report noted that coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C. This impact alone puts Pacific islands in even more vulnerable and dire circumstances.
For Samoa and our Pacific island neighbors, the implications of 1.5°C or higher are already here.
Rising temperatures, pro longed rainfall and increased frequency of flooding will create the perfect environment for water borne diseases. Anything carried by mosquitos will multiply as breeding conditions improve and as such the rise in vector borne diseases. Samoa saw a rise in dengue fever in 2017 coinciding with the wet-season. These impacts have and will continue to rise according to World Health Organization. The fact health is mentioned in the IPCC SR1.5 means this is now a serious concern.
The decline in coral reef by 70-90 percent means artisanal fisheries will suffer and as such livelihood and food sources will be affected for our coastal communities. For our families relying heavily on fisheries as a source of income, they will be hit hard and as a result will have to find alternative income sources and food sources through potentially more expensive and unhealthy means.
The cost of extreme weather events on the Pacific have been well documented in the past five years with a hit on national budgets ranging from 10 to hundreds of millions. These immediately have a drastic impact on the economy as a whole and key areas such as infrastructure, health and others. Cyclone Evan had a massive impact on our economy and infrastructure that it took five years to reestablish some normality back to our road system.
The cost of climate change on the business sector will continue to rise as extreme weather events continue to occur more frequently. These costs were obvious with Cyclone Gita when Sheraton Apia was severely flooded less than a year after a multi-million dollar refurbishment. But that’s just one establishment, small businesses suffered first and worse in some cases, especially beach fales and small suppliers.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, climate change will greatly affect the health and productivity of crops and livestock. FAO notes that fragile ecosystems of Pacific islands will be directly affected through hazard exposure and will subsequently affect crop yields. Just think of the Fugalei and Salelologa market and how certain crops are not available for months on end after cyclones, that is a direct impact of extreme weather events on our crops.
Our ecosystems will suffer as a result of temperature increases. For small vulnerable ecosystems this is an extremely scary eventuality. Climate change can alter where species live, how they interact and the timing of biological events which could fundamentally transform current ecosystems and food webs. A good example is the manumea which has been feared extinct by many scientists. The last confirmed sighting was in Savaii within the past five years. The main threat according to those who have been working towards protecting is the threats on their habitats.
Our islands depend on oceans to survive; the impact of rising temperatures on coral reefs will continue to impact us both direct and indirectly. Food security and cultural practice will be impacted as a result. As oceans continue to be impacted by climate change, so too are the community and cultural practices that depend upon it.
These are just some of the many impacts which have already and will continue to be felt by our islands as a result of climate change. The IPCC SR15 findings and conclusions are not new, we have known these facts since 1990s but it is just unfortunate that we need over 6000 peer reviewed journal articles by leading scientists to make a case for it.
There’s no waking up that needs to be done by world leaders, as IPCC Authors stated there needs to be unprecedented action. Samoa and many Pacific islands have demonstrated leadership in climate circles, setting the right policy direction and adjusting the way we do business to adapt. Unfortunately for us, we are having to develop in the face of mounting evidence that the problem will continue to worsen.
Do not - by any measure of the imagination be lulled into a false sense of security by the wording of the IPCC Summary for Policymakers where 1.5 is compared to 2 degrees as contrasting scenarios. We are now at the precipice of a major global catastrophe that has already begun – unfortunately for tiny islands like ours, mere dot on the maps, we don’t have much carbon footprint or indeed the geographical presence to make a big difference. One can only hope that our high emitting counterparts both developed and developing change the way they do business to shift what is already a pretty sad picture for all of us.
One thing is for sure though - we in the Pacific hold a major moral high ground that even as our friends in Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and Tokelau descend into the vast Pacific ocean, at least, at the very least, we have that. Integrity, which - in the face of current political climate, is at least something to stand tall for.
*Lagipoiva is an Expert Reviewer for the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere (SROCC). She is pursuing her PhD on the implications of oceans and climate change on state sovereignties of the Pacific.