Annika Dean, a PhD student based as Australia's Climate Change Research centre, has been on Tarawa atoll in Kiribati for the past three months, and she says that sometimes the idea that sea level rise is responsible for any and all changes to the coastline can cause decision makers to believe, falsely, there's little they can do.
Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Annika Dean, PhD student at Australia's Climate Change Research centre; Senator Tony de Brum, the Minister in Assistance to the Marshall Islands President
DEAN: Yes, I think that sense of fatalism is a very real phenomenon and we hear it very often from Pacific Island leaders and governments.
Coastal dynamics are extremely complex and they're impacted by many different factors, including natural processes of erosion and accretion, ocean currents and there's also human activities which impact them, such as pollution and overfishing which impact reef health and sand mining and the construction of coastal infrastructure, such as sea walls ironically and also causeways, which are built to link different islets. So these all have an impact on coastlines.
On top of this, there's sea level rise, and the tidal guages is on Tarawa and measuring the sea level rise of three millimetres per year. The projections are that sea level rise will be between 20 centimetres and 60 centimetres by 2090, so that's another phenomenon that's happening on top of all of this.
HILL: This fatalism, does it have an affect on decision making about what people can do to mitigate the effects of this?
DEAN: Yes, people tend to construct sea walls basically. They blame erosion on sea level rise and they think the most direct way to combat that is by building a sea wall.
There are lots of negative impacts often from sea walls. It should really be a last option and there are many other things that can be done that address underlying drivers of vulnerability of coastlines, so things like building reef resilience, addressing overfishing, better land use planning, even addressing the overpopulation issues, which are really putting a strain on coastlines, because of infrastructure and also the additional pollution from overpopulation.
HILL: So not necessarily everything to do with the coastal environment in low lying atolls, like Tarawa, where you've been is necessarily directly related to sea level rise and there are things that people could do, not necessarily directly related to sea level rise, which could really improve their environment?
DEAN: Yeah, that's correct. And there are some things that are being done. There is a European Union funded environmentally safe aggregate for Tarawa Project which is being implement by SOPAC, and it's trying to phase out big aggregate mining on south Tarawa by doing a lagoon dredging program. So that's a kind of innovative thinking outside the box approach to improving coastal resilience.
HILL: But Senator Tony de Brum, the Minister in Assistance to the Marshall Islands President, disputes claims of fatalism about the affects of sea level rise.
He says that political leaders in the Pacific are very active in trying to do something about the problem.
DE BRUM: No, no, I don't think that is the case this part of the world. If there is an expression of fatalism, it usually comes from those people who do not want to support our efforts in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
In the Marshalls, for example, solarised the outer island communities. We have been able to declare a shark sanctuary for the entire country. I mean we are doing our part where we can to try and help this earth survive and we're not taking that lightly. We are not fatalists. What we have problems with is that in the past, people have actually done land fields or built causeways between islands without any regard to the free flow of water from ocean to lagoon, which is now being exacerbated with a higher level of tides and we can correct it by reopening these things, spend money to make bridges instead of causeways, which small atolls can better support, given their fragile ecological systems. But we are not being fatalistic at all about doing what we can for climate change.
The Majuro Declaration is an example of a small country standing up, wait, enough is enough. Everybody's talking about it, but nobody's doing anything about it. So let's go take the lead, and then see where we can fit in and where we can get our bigger partners to respond positively to climate change, that's what we're doing, and anybody who says that we're being fatalistic about it, is I'm sorry mistaken.