Climate Change Effects in Oceania | World Series Part 4
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
In Part Four of our World Climate Change series, we will be discussing the climate change impacts in Oceania, which includes the regions of Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia.
The Oceania region is made up of many islands, which are all surrounded by and connected by the sea, thus the title ‘Liquid Continent’. Compared to other continents, it has the smallest land area and population size.
Being a majority of coastal nations, the people of Oceania rely heavily on seawater as the source for their livelihood and economy. Therefore, climate change impacts on sea-level rise and rising sea temperatures are a great threat, especially to the people living in low-lying and vulnerable areas.
These climate-induced changes would not only impact the human livelihood and economy, but also the ecosystem, plants, and animals.
Climate change is caused by an increase in atmospheric gasses such as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. These emissions are originated by natural processes and anthropogenic emissions, as the ‘source’ of GHG. On the other hand, these GHGs are absorbed by the oceans, trees, and some are contained in ice caps, as the ‘sink’ for GHG.
Nevertheless, due to excessive anthropogenic emissions being produced, more GHG are emitted to the atmosphere, trapping more energy from the sun and causing an increase in global surface temperature, also known as the greenhouse effect on the earth.
This process affects the oceans to absorb more heat, so other than an increase in surface temperature, sea temperatures are also rising.
A rise in sea temperatures could result in rising sea levels and a change in ocean currents which alters the climate pattern around the world. In Oceania, the sea temperatures have increased to 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.1 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in 2018. And it is currently rising to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the Pacific region, according to researchers.
To the marine ecosystem, a rapid temperature increase has many negative impacts, such as coral bleaching and ocean acidification, which creates an unsurvivable habitat that could kill the fishes, corals, and other aquatic species.
Fishes would then start to migrate towards the poles due to the heat stress added by pollution and over-fishing. These processes disrupt natural ocean ecosystem processes but are also disadvantaging for the people who rely on the ocean as a source of income.
Around USD 3 billion subsidies have been provided to the Pacific countries, as their economy has been especially disadvantaged by this climate change impact, considering they are mostly coastal cities.
Besides the marine ecosystem, the alteration in climate patterns caused by shifts in ocean currents is also impacting the land ecosystem. They produce storms, cyclones, hurricanes, and other severe weather events which disrupt land activities and can be destructive.
Climate scientists are expecting that hurricanes will be more severe and more frequent due to climate change. As for the people in the Pacific islands, they are geographically located in limited areas with limited resources. Consequently, they are particularly vulnerable to these disasters.
Rising sea levels are one of the most threatening climate change impact on island habitats and the economy, especially for people who live in coastal cities and islands, which is the case for the Oceania community.
Researchers have found that the sea levels in the Pacific region are rising faster than the global average. Some small islands in the Pacific, such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands, are starting to sink and vanish underwater.
Loss of infrastructure and coastal land due to erosions are threatening the livelihood of people living in the coastal lines and islands. Coastal erosions to low-lying areas such as in Tuvalu are causing atolls to be abandoned.
Saltwater intrusion is also causing loss of agricultural land and freshwater. In Fiji, sugar cane crops are declining due to increasing saline conditions. Besides disadvantaging the economy, human health is also impacted by contaminated water and a decline in crop fitness.
Climate-induced social and cultural conflicts
Rising sea temperatures, alongside the factors that are caused by it, such as sea-level rise, damaged infrastructure, and economy, are an undeniable threat to the people of Oceania.
As they are geographically located with limited land area and resources, they are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise as it is threatening the island economy and habitability. Therefore, it is clear that migration is the most effective adaptation strategy.
However, with this forced migration, also arises some social and cultural conflicts, which all began from the effects of climate change.
Climate migration is where people are forced to relocate to another area due to their current home being unhabitable. Climate migration could cause various forms of conflicts to arise. Some conflicts can start from neighboring communities, domestic, to even nation scale conflicts.
And worse, these conflicts could sometimes lead to intergroup/domestic violence and be destructive. For example, migrants’ homes and food gardens are destroyed, young migrants have been attacked and some women were raped.
In Kiribati, neighbors have invaded each other’s land due to water scarcity. These conflicts and even violent actions arise, partially due to a lack of governance and adaptation planning in controlling the community and spreading information.
From the cultural perspective, some communities are reluctant to migrate because they want to sustain their culture and values. For example, in Tuvalu, the communities do not want to be called refugees, and some Christian communities said that they don’t believe in climate change and that God will protect them.
Mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts requires the role and cooperation from all the communities, government, and other institutions.
The head of communities, such as the Christian community or the head of the cultural community, could provide assistance and support for the government in persuading the people of Oceania to fight and adapt to these climate change impacts.
At the end of the day, a well-coordinated collective effort is needed to mitigate the pressing issue of climate change in any part of the world.
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Olivia Eugenia is an Environmental Science student at the University of Western Australia. She is also an activist and a content writer at IYOPS.
Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.