What a ‘climate emergency’ looks like in the Pacific

About an hour from the capital of Fiji is the village of Togoru. Here, even the dead are not immune to the effects of climate change.
A few shell-covered gravestones are all that remain of the village’s ancestral cemetery.
Lavenia McGoon has lived in Togoru all her life. She got married and raised children in a small village.
She said she was heartbroken to see the place where her relatives were buried, now underwater.

“It is sad to see that our great-grandfather is in the water, he is buried there. When nature takes over, what can we do, what can we say?” she said.

Pieces of old broken tombstones sticking out of the shallow sea water.

The tombstones that mark the graves of Lavenia McGoon’s ancestors have been flooded due to rising sea levels. Source: SBS news / Shuba Krishnan

Members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), including Australia, who met in Fiji during the week, are expected to in a yet-to-be-published communiqué following the summit.

The white paper listing the results of the forum said the leaders agreed to “declare that the Pacific region is facing a climate emergency that threatens the livelihoods, security and well-being of its people and ecosystems, as evidenced by the latest scientific advances and the realities of everyday life.” Pacific communities. . ”

Pacific focus

The leaders also supported Vanuatu’s call for the International Court of Justice to clarify the legal implications of climate change.
According to climate change could displace some 216 million people in six regions of the world by 2050.
Ailey Gallant, senior lecturer at Monash University’s School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, said small island nations in the Pacific are more affected by climate change than most other parts of the world.
“These are low-lying countries, so they are more vulnerable to sea level rise,” Dr. Gallant said.

“Their position in the tropics means they are in the path of increasingly severe tropical cyclones, have smaller populations and less ability to cope with the effects of climate change.”


Climate Council Senior Scientist and Griffith University Scientist Wesley Morgan, who traveled to Fiji to attend the PIF, said the country will see an increase in the number of people fleeing their homes due to rising sea levels in the coming years.
“Because the vast majority of Fiji’s population lives very close to the coast, sea level rise and coastal flooding are a problem for these coastal communities,” Dr. Morgan.
We are already seeing the internal displacement of some villages, the planned relocation of villages, and I think we will see more in the future.

“Pacific communities have very close ties to the land, and if they are forced to relocate, you can have social tensions, social tensions.”

A woman standing in front of tires and sandbags on a small stretch of beach with the ocean behind her.

Lavenia McGoon saw the sea take over the land around her home in Togoru. Source: SBS news / Shuba Krishnan

In Togoru, Ms. McGoon does her best to keep the water from flooding her house, she is adamant and will not move.

“I’m too old for this to start over,” she said.
She used sandbags and tires to keep the waves from eroding the shoreline and from approaching her home.
“I pray, I ask my heavenly father to protect my beach, at least I will try to do my part,” she said.

In the neighborhood, Mereya Brown and her husband John earn a living by fishing and making brooms from coconuts.

A woman sits on board a small wooden boat filled with water, which sits on wet sand in front of palm trees and the ocean in the background.

Togoru resident Mereya Brown. Source: SBS news / Shuba Krishnan

It was once a steady income, but now coastal erosion has caused most of the coconut trees to be washed away.

“We use coconut leaves to make them, but most of the coconut trees are gone,” Ms Brown said.
She said there were fewer fish in the water.

“I used to go fishing for only 15-20 minutes, and you get a lot. Nothing now,” she said.

Defensive walls are being built throughout the city as the villagers desperately battle rising sea levels and violent storm surges.

Simony Rathukadreou is the dam project manager. He used to work for the government, but has since retired and devoted his time to fighting the effects of climate change in his home village.

A man sits on the background of the ocean.

Seawall Project Manager Simony Rathukadreou. Source: SBS News / Shuba Krishnan

He said they have lost 10 to 15 acres of coastline in the past 10 years and many people have had to move to higher ground.

“We know that a lot of research has been done and it has been said that action is needed.”


Kiribati was one of the first countries to start noticing the impact of global warming on their daily lives due to rising sea levels.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global mean sea levels rose by about 20 centimeters between 1901 and 2018, and nearly half of that increase has occurred since 1993.

“Kiribati is one of a number of Pacific countries that is no higher than five meters above sea level at any point, right. These are atoll islands that are typically one to two meters above sea level, just like the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu,” said Dr. Morgan.

“They are facing an existential threat as sea levels rise, even to the point of total flooding, drinking water becomes saltier, and the combined effects of climate change are making these islands less and less habitable.”

A man in a light blue shirt and flat cap stands in front of palm trees.

Dr. Wesley Morgan in Fiji for the Pacific Islands Forum. Source: Supplied

Solomon islands

In the Solomon Islands, where many people live a subsistence lifestyle and where tuna accounts for about 18 percent of the country’s GDP, a small rise in ambient ocean temperatures can have a big impact.
“We are seeing coral bleaching in the Pacific, and many Pacific communities rely on reefs, nutrients for their protein, fishing, and so it has devastating effects,” Dr. Morgan said.

“Climate change is also projected to change the distribution of deep sea fish such as tuna, which could have a really big impact on Pacific countries that rely on tuna fishing for their income.”

Women fish at the market in Honiara.

Fish is an important part of the diet and economy of the Solomon Islands. Source: Getty / DAVE HUNT


Tonga, like its Pacific neighbors, has had to deal with severe cyclones such as Tropical Cyclone Harold, which hit the country hard in 2020.
“Climate change means we have a warmer ocean and we have an atmosphere that holds more moisture and that provides more fuel for cyclones,” Dr. Morgan said.

“So when they do happen, they are more likely to be Category 5 cyclones, or rather severe cyclones, and over the past decade we have seen the most powerful cyclones in Pacific history make landfall.”


Dr. Morgan said that climate change is causing floods and be more severe.
“We have always had floods and we have always had fires, but climate change has changed those events,” he said.
The recent floods could also be linked to climate change, he said.
“We know that the soil and the atmosphere hold more moisture, so we are seeing an increase in heavy short-term rainfall that leads to flooding,” he said.

“It is no coincidence that 2019 in Australia was the hottest and driest year on record. And then 2020 saw the most catastrophic fires of the black summer fires.”

A firefighter watches the flames of a forest fire.

Dr Morgan said climate change has led to more severe flooding and wildfires in Australia.

Planning for the future

Two years ago, Curtin University Perth began offering what two years ago sustainability professor and lead author of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for Transport, Peter Newman, called the first Master in Climate and Environmental Emergencies.
“We are building the next circle of people who can get out there and help governments, industries and especially communities know what to do about this climate emergency,” he said.

Professor Newman said the recognition by Pacific leaders of the climate emergency was a compelling statement.

Professor Peter Newman.

Professor Peter Newman. Source: Supplied

“Essentially, this means that we are no longer in a position where we can say that this is just a soft transition. Now we have to step up,” he said.

Professor Newman said he believes the situation has been “an emergency” for about 15 years, and while Pacific island leaders have been at the forefront of the call for action on climate change, they have previously been “diplomatic” on the issue with their more big colleagues. .

Australia contributes 20 times the total emissions of all the small Pacific Island countries combined, while New Zealand contributes two and a half times, according to the Climate Council report on climate change in the Pacific, released ahead of the PIF.