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Beyond Climate Science: Cultural Loss in the Pacific Islands

Beyond Climate Science: Cultural Loss in the Pacific Islands

Small Islands states are at the frontline of climate change with rising sea levels, accelerating storm surges, and biodiversity loss. The consequences of global warming make the Pacific habitats increasingly inhabitable. As a result, climate adaptation and relocation planning have become key issues on the agenda of international organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations. However, climate change goes beyond the physical sphere. It threatens not only Pacific habitats but also the meanings attached to them.

Pacific nations such as Fiji, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, and Kiribati are some of the world’s most vulnerable areas to climate change. Their geographic location and low-lying atolls pose little to their resistant capacity to tropical cyclones and rising sea levels. Despite global efforts to keep the global temperature below 1.5C, these islands are still bearing the brunt of a warming planet, with increased coastal inundations threatening their resilience. Much of the research has been done on the socioeconomic consequences of climate change. However, an increasing number of reports are now looking beyond statistics. For example, the latest IPPC report recognises the value of indigenous perception and knowledge of climate change and conservation. 

The Local Value of Land

The Pacific region has long traditions of sea voyages, community values, and ecological connections. Despite the vast scattering over the Pacific Ocean, these island communities are characterised by the common value-based traditions underpinning the importance of their ocean homelands.  However, for Pacific Islanders, the land is more than a place to live. It is a foundation of cultural and spiritual well-being. This is where the ancestor spirits rest and hold the stories of Polynesian origins, traditional rites, and values that connect their community into one being. Such a unique interconnection with land and the environment constructs the Pacific sense of identity and collective belonging. 

Loss and Climate Change in the Pacific Islands

The profound consequences of climate change, such as sinking shores and storm surges, continuously threaten habitable and arable land, freshwater resources, and infrastructure. With worsening forecasts, relocation planning has become a core adaptation measure for coastal communities. 

For some Tuvaluans, the fears of prospective cultural loss prompted “worry, anxiety, and disrupted sleep.” These emotions mirror what the uncertain future of climate change may bring.  

Disruption to collective identity through the loss of land has already been documented in Fiji. The inland relocation of coastal communities disorganised the social structures of some villages’ values and traditions. However, an example of Vunidogoloa shows that migration “strengthened” the sense of community and brought them together in a time of stress and the unknown. Despite the loss of their village land, the people of Vunidogoloa reinforced their local values and collective identity through the power of community. 

As an old proverb says: “The Polynesian is not a place, it’s a people”.

This message encompasses hope for the continuity of Pacific cultures and traditions. For it is not the first time that the Pacific resilience and endurance have been put to the test. Looking beyond climate science, the meaning of place attached to environmental change brings new perspectives that shall be valued for the futures of those that were given no choice in the climate battle.

You might also like: 5 Facts About Climate Migrants You Should Know About

About the Author

Anna Elzbieta Kolendo

Anna Kolendo has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Asia Pacific Studies from the University of Central Lancashire. Previously working as a research assistant for the Insititute for the Study of the Asia Pacific (ISAP), Anna developed her passion for climate change and environmental studies. She is currently conducting her PhD that focuses on socio-religious climate change perspectives in the Pacific Islands. Hoping to raise awareness of the consequences of climate change in the Pacific, Anna is representing this region as an Island Innovation Ambassador 2023.

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