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Panel 4: Adapting Oceania? Scrutinizing the concepts, culture and politics of climate change adaptation in Oceania


Carola Betzold, Silja Klepp, Arno Pascht, Patrick Nunn

Session presentation

Adapting to the adverse effects of climate change is regarded as vital for Pacific island states and communities, which are identified as “particularly vulnerable“. Yet, many adaptation measures have unexpected and unintended results and are considered as neither effective nor sustained. A key factor for this is that adaptation concepts and measures often lack historical, social, political and cultural depth and do not take into account local contexts, Pacific life-worlds and cultural specificities, or power relations. Nonetheless, adaptation and adaptation finance is important for national and regional household budgets and political decision-making at all scales. This panel explores adaptation materialities and knowledge in the Pacific: How is adaptation used, interpreted, transformed, and realized on the ground? How is it changing or interfering with power relations, legal pluralism and local (ecological) knowledge? Can adaptation measures integrate indigenous life-worlds, cultural knowledge and cultural practice such that they have their best chance of being effective and sustainable? What are major barriers to including cultural specificities and different life-worlds in the science, policy and funding decisions of climate change adaptation? We invite contributions from different disciplinary backgrounds and in particular welcome papers that challenge conventional thinking about climate change adaptation, resilience and vulnerability and/or that apply postcolonial and indigenous perspectives.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers


Patrick Nunn (University of the Sunshine Coast)

Arno Pascht (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

Carola Betzold (University of Antwerp)

Silja Klepp (Kiel University)

This introduction provides an overview of session 4: Adapting Oceania? Scrutinizing the concepts, culture and politics of climate change adaptation in Oceania.

Navigating a Changing Sea: Mobility as Adaptation and Resiliency in Oceania

Rowan Gard (University of St Andrews)

Many Pacific island nations have been crucial in leading the global dialogue on climate change. As a global response to short and long-term climate change continues to be formulated it is vital that this response be a cultural and faith-integrated process spanning from local to regional in scope. Two significant facets of extreme weather and climate change response in the Oceania are the roles faith-based organisations (FBOs) and mobility can play in community resiliency schemes.

Drawing inspiration from traditional Pacific voyaging and the Hawaiian ‘ōlelo no‘eau, Aia i ka mole ke ola; E ‘ike pono i ke au nui me ke au ‘ike (There in the foundation is life; Know well the big currents and the little currents) this paper considers and elucidates the importance of mobility in response to extreme weather events and long-term climate change scenarios. Further, emerging research points to resiliency being enhanced with cyclical mobility and income diversification within national boundaries, and that mobility does not necessarily result in migration. However, the effects of mobility do impact extreme weather response organization, asset deployment, adaptation and urban poverty, which is a further source of vulnerability. Consequently, mobility and migration management policies in response to extreme weather events and long-term climate change are far more complex than previously acknowledged and are deserving of deeper consideration.

Climate Change, Land and Imagining Migration: Conceptual Linkages in the Atoll State Kiribati

Elfriede Hermann (University of Goettingen)

Projections of the impacts of climate change on atoll states have led media, policy makers, churches and NGOs to debate resettlement, with social scientists proposing that migration be considered as an adaptation strategy for atoll populations. The media in particular have represented atoll populations as (future) ‘environmental’ or ‘climate refugees’ without paying attention to the fact that Pacific Islanders reject these labels. Recent research pointing to this fact also showed that atoll inhabitants have close relations to their land and are reluctant to leave it. Little was written, however, on Pacific Islanders’ cultural concepts that would render migration possible for them. This paper presents a case study of the atoll state Kiribati, arguing that it is the indigenous concept of land-and-collectivity that not only holds back a majority of people but also enables a minority to imagine migration. Motivated by this cultural concept, all I-Kiribati want their islands to be strengthened by adaptive measures. But the same concept unfolds its efficacy when associated with the thought of the land purchased in Fiji by the Kiribati government, giving rise to an emerging discourse on migration as a last resort.

Financing Kiribati: An overview of money flows and climate adaptation projects

Tobias Leonhardt (University of Bern)

The 33 islands of Kiribati are not well-known. In recent years, however, they have gained somewhat of a fame for being at the forefront of global climate change and for policies such as ‘Migration with Dignity’ which, among other things, aims at preparing islanders for staged emigration.

In this presentation, I cover two aspects. Firstly, I provide an overview of Kiribati’s money flows and address the role of the Reserve Fund (an artefact of the phosphate industry), remittances between family members, and foreign aid. Secondly, I discuss a few of the policies, programs and projects that are financed through these sources. Of particular interest are the Kiribati Adaptation Program (KAP) and the aforementioned ‘Migration with Dignity’ policy. I aim to provide insights into interesting cultural changes in progress at the intersection of economy and climate change, as well as to describe how climate adaptation projects are mediated, communicated and realised with the local communities.

This presentation is informed through fieldwork on Kiribati in 2015 including a brief period of voluntary work for the KAP.

Myth Busting the donor/development partner response to Pacific diesel dependency

Peter Nuttall (University of the South Pacific)

For millennia the Pacific led the world as the greatest naval architects, seafarers and navigators exploiting advanced learned knowledge of hydro and aerodynamics to expand, maintain and sustain Oceanic connectivity. Today the Pacific is the most imported oil dependent region in the world (95% dependency, 99%) with a growing transport crisis. Development partner inventions since 2011 now sees ~$2billion committed or queued under the single objective of reducing diesel dependency. Increasingly such intervention, with complicit support of international and regional agency architectures, is delivered as climate change adaptation or mitigation assistance. Based on obviously flawed policy analysis from this collective, almost all such financing is directed at increased efficiency or alternates to conventional electricity generation, ignoring the reality that three quarters of regional fuel burn is for transport and electricity use is only ~20% of regional totals. Research shows these electricity directed initiatives are largely symbolic in terms of savings and benefit. Transport is the greatest contributor to the region’s GHG emissions profile and yet this is largely absent from country NDCs. Recent analysis show this failing is also directly attributable to poorly geared international interventions by the same suspects. When challenged donors, such as EU and NZ, and regional agencies shave shown the most remarkable use of ‘alternative fact’ generation to deflect attention.

New Strategies for New Challenges? Ideas and Practices of Adaptation in Malakula

Desirée Hetzel (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

The recent dry period in Vanuatu, nationwide called el Niño, has lasted most of 2016 and in some parts of Vanuatu it continues until today. In my current research project in Dixon Reef, Malakula, I concentrate on different food security measures and ideas of adapting agriculture to current climatic changes. Various programs and workshops were conducted over the last years by experts from NGOs and the Agriculture Department who aimed to introduce ideas of new techniques for agriculture. Additionally, small backyard gardens were planted and people learned how to maintain them by using different ideas of Permaculture. Despite of this, community members of Dixon Reef have their own ideas of how to make a garden with different approaches of preparing the soil, planting and mulching. They are interested in new ideas and solutions for problems but simultaneously realise their own strategies by continuous trial. How do people develop practices to secure their own food supply? How do they experience and work with an environment of changes and new ideas? These questions are central for the ongoing research as well as for this presentation.

Changing the Climate: Local Adaptations and Resilience toward Global Warming Realities on a Remote Pacific Island

David Tibbetts (James Cook University)

Located in western Micronesia, Hatohobei (Tobi) island is physically remote and significantly vulnerable to changing climate impacts. While most of the community has relocated to the urban center of Koror in the Republic of Palau, the continued connection with the home island is crucial to Tobian cultural identity and community empowerment. With increasing concern over climate events impacting the island and its marine resources, community leaders have proactively engaged a two-pronged approach toward adaptation efforts; 1) community education and awareness; and 2) relationships with donors that help support a successful community-based marine resource management program. My ethnographic research highlights how these transformative efforts are preparing the community for uncertain futures. How this small minority community actively empowers itself through its interface with contemporary neoliberal policies, models and agendas is a testament to Hatohobei resiliency and agency and a model within itself that can be useful for many other small island communities facing similar challenges.

Exploring resource use, socio- economic and political factors shaping perceptions and discourses of adaptation and adaptive capacity to climate change on Takuu Atoll, Papua New Guinea

Anke Moesinger (University of Bremen)

Located 273 kilometers northeast of Buka, Bougainville is the 1 km2 Takuu Atoll, commonly known by locals simply as Mortlock. With only 316 inhabitants, the people of this geographically remote Polynesian outlier are claimed to be among the most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of anthropogenic climate change. These impacts include erosion of shorelines, salination of the water table affecting swamp taro (Cyrtosperma merkusii) cultivation, increased flooding from amplified ‘king tides’ and changing weather patterns. The Autonomous Bougainville Government’s promise to relocate the population as ‘climate refugees’ by 2015 to a both physically and culturally incompatible region has not been implemented. Researchers claimed that Takuu would prove uninhabitable during this decade. However, the islanders’ extensive local ecological knowledge and insightful resource use patterns, coping strategies, socio- economic conditions and political factors have received minimal attention in current debates. Incorporating locals' perspectives through participant observation, semi- structured interviews, focus groups, village mapping and censuses, my research argues that socio- economic conditions, rather than environmental ones, are at the foremost concern for atoll inhabitants. To further more effective climate change adaptation practices, I challenge the predominant conventional myopic natural science- driven one-size-fits-all approach that has failed the most vulnerable populations.

False promises: seawalls as maladaptations throughout the rural Pacific Islands

Patrick Nunn (University of the Sunshine Coast)

Seawalls have been popular adaptive interventions by donor partners of Pacific Island Countries for decades, commonly constructed in iconic locations such as capital cities or airports. Such interventions have sent many observers in the Pacific islands the message that seawalls are the best way to counter the effects of shoreline change associated with recent sea-level rise. As a result, seawalls have become a popular response to shoreline erosion and inundation in rural communities throughout the Pacific islands.

In rural locations, most such seawalls generally collapse within 18-24 months of their construction necessitating repair, in places rebuilding, for which the interested parties do not generally have funds available. As a result, damaged seawalls remain unrepaired and ineffectual. Pacific island coasts are littered with the remains of collapsed seawalls, making these a fine example of maladaptation.

Seawalls appear to be effective and are commonly perceived as a self-evident way of stopping shoreline erosion; they are readily emulated; they promise much yet they fail quickly, often leaving behind a significantly worse situation than that which obtained before seawall construction. Rural Pacific island communities would be better considering soft adaptive solutions like mangrove (re-)planting or relocation of their most vulnerable parts to less exposed locations, a process that can be iterative rather than abrupt to reduce its societal impact.

Exploring Climate Change Across Different Land Tenures in Wewak District, Papua New Guinea

Georgina Numbasa (RMIT University)

This paper examines the impact of climate change on communities in informal settlements in Wewak District, Papua New Guinea. The purpose of this study is to explore climate change adaptation across different land tenure arrangements and investigates how improved tenure arrangements can help facilitate successful adaptation to climate change. The research is based on field work carried out in three communities using a mixed method of both qualitative and quantitative research methods that involves household questionnaire surveys, focus group discussions, and informal interviews. The paper will outline the various ways in which settlers have gained access to land and examine how access rights are maintained and have changed over time. Then the impact of climate change will be discussed together with the study results that show the impact of climate change is particularly severe for migrant settlers in informal settlements with limited land tenure security. Hence, the paper concludes that there is a strong relationship between tenure security and migrant household’s capacity to adapt to climate change. Finally the implications of the study will be discussed to design suitable land policies to help facilitate successful adaptation to climate change.

Capturing community diversity for adaptation in the Pacific Islands: the role of peripherality

Patrick Nunn (University of the Sunshine Coast)

External interventions for adaptation in the Pacific Islands often view communities as homogenous. This one-size-fits-all approach not only fails to capture reality but often results in inappropriate interventions that fail to acknowledge the geographical locations and cultural nuances of particular communities. To overcome this and to help inform the design and application of future interventions for climate-change adaptation, measuring the peripherality of individual communities will assist donor organisations as well as national planning authorities in fine-tuning future interventions to give them a better chance of being effective and sustainable.

Peripherality is a geographical measure, the position of a particular community along the core-periphery gradient that exists in island countries. Preliminary results show that communities close to developmental cores are more globally-engaged, more scientifically-aware yet less able to draw upon cultural knowledge for coping with environmental change. In contrast, communities on the periphery are generally less globally connected and aware yet have a considerable stock of culturally-grounded information that allows them to cope better with adverse environmental changes.

This study is expected to develop tools that can be used for effective and sustainable adaptation planning in the future in Pacific Island Countries.