The Regional Impacts of Climate Change

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9.3.9. Cultural Integrity

In many small island states, a number of factors, including isolation and close traditional ties to the land and sea, have contributed to the development of a unique set of cultural traits on different islands or groups of islands. In Tuvalu, for instance-as in other small Pacific atoll states-attachment to land and sea is a critical component of local cosmology (SPREP, 1996). Any force that poses a threat to this attachment would be culturally and socially disruptive in these traditional societies.

Ethnic, linguistic, social, and religious differences among and between the peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia in the South Pacific illustrate the cultural diversity of the island states. The unique cultures that have developed over millenia on the resource-rich and diverse high-volcanic and limestone islands in the region, such as Vanuatu, Fiji, and Samoa, are unlikely to be seriously threatened by climate change. On the other hand, resource-poor, low-reef islands and atolls, which have developed equally distinctive traditional identities over centuries-such as the Tuvaluan, Kiribati, Marshallese, and Maldivian cultures-are more at risk. The fragility of these low islands and their sensitivity to sea-level change and storms suggest that the future existence of such islands and their cultural diversity could be seriously threatened (Roy and Connell, 1991).

9.4. Integrated Analysis of Potential Vulnerabilities and Impacts

Because of their strong dependence on economic sectors that are highly sensitive to climate change effects (e.g., coastal tourism and agriculture), small island states clearly are a vulnerable group of countries (IPCC 1996, WG III, Sections 6.5.10, 6.5.11). Briguglio (1993) developed a mean "vulnerability index" for different categories of nations, based on three selected variables: export dependence, insularity and remoteness, and proneness to natural disasters. Although there may be some limitations associated with this index (e.g., the restricted criteria), it supports the widely held view that small island states will be more vulnerable than any other group of countries to projected climate change impacts. On a scale from 0 (lowest vulnerability) to 1 (highest vulnerability), a score of 0.590 (the highest index) was derived for the small island group. A lower index, 0.539, was calculated for other developing countries; the index for all developing countries as a group was 0.417. Indeed, based on Briguglio's index, 9 of the 10 most vulnerable countries are small islands. Thus, though the index has its limitations, it draws attention to the high vulnerability of small island states in relation to all other regional groups.

Pernetta (1988) ranks Pacific islands in terms of their vulnerability to sea-level rise, taking other factors-such as elevation-into consideration. Based on his classification, states such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati would suffer "profound" impacts, including disappearance in the worst-case scenario; "severe impacts," resulting in major population displacement, would be experienced by the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and Tonga; "moderate to severe impacts" would be felt by Fiji and the Solomon Islands; and "local severe to catastrophic" effects would be experienced by Vanuatu and Western Samoa.

It must be emphasized, however, that the sensitivity of small islands to the projected effects of climate change cannot be attributed to any single factor (e.g., size, elevation, remoteness, or any other) or to a select group of factors. Rather, the level of vulnerability of these islands is determined by the cumulative and synergistic result of these and related biophysical attributes (including the degree of natural adaptive capacity), combined with the islands' economic and sociocultural characters (including current and future levels of anthropogenic stress) (see, e.g., SPREP, 1996). Moreover, because many small islands already are prone to other hazards (e.g., tropical cyclones and storm surges) that invariably have adverse effects, climate change impacts on longer time scales could render these countries extremely vulnerable.

The Caribbean countries are a case in point. Some face an annual threat from hurricanes (cyclones); others, such as St. Vincent and Montserrat, are prone to disruptive volcanic activity; and still others are affected by periodic earthquakes and tsunamis (Maul, 1996). Most have extensive, vulnerable, low-lying coastal plains; some (e.g., Barbados, Antigua, St. Kitts, Bahamas) are heavily dependent on groundwater supplies; and for many, tourism is the most vital economic sector. A higher incidence of flooding and inundation, beach and coastal land loss, reef damage, salinization of the freshwater lens, and disruption of tourism and infrastructure would create economic and social crises in a number of these islands. Thus, many Caribbean countries must be classified as vulnerable to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise-not simply because of their size or elevation alone but because of strong linkages between these and other physical characteristics, natural resources, and socioeconomic structures.

Moreover, for small islands with limited resources, it is absolutely essential for integrated assessment models to include the value of nonmarketed goods and services that also will be at risk. Commodities such as cultural and subsistence assets (e.g., community structures), recreational values, traditional skills and knowledge, and natural values (e.g., the capacity of mangroves to filter nitrate and phosphate and thus reduce nutrient loading to the marine zone) are just as important to some small islands as marketed goods and services. Such nonmarketed goods and services often are not incorporated into integrated assessment models. From the perspective of small island states, the integration of these assets is an important and necessary challenge facing the modeling community. Some recent attempts to develop an appropriate methodology for vulnerability assessment, incorporating these factors, have been made by Yamada et al. (1995) for southWest Pacific islands.

Clearly, it would be inappropriate to assess the sensitivity of small islands to climate change impacts in isolation from other factors that contribute to their overall vulnerability. Constraining factors such as size, elevation, limited resources (natural, financial, and technological), proneness to natural hazards, dependence on external markets, and generally high population growth rates enhance the vulnerability of these island states (Alm et al., 1993). Only when the effects of such factors are evaluated in combination with the threat of climate change impacts can a meaningful vulnerability index for small island states be developed and appropriate adaptation options pursued (see Box 9-6).

Box 9-6. A Small Island Response to Climate Change

Climate change will impose diverse and significant impacts on small island states. Impediments to responses to climate change in small islands include:

  • Lack of definitive projections of temperature, rainfall, and sea level
  • Ambiguous statements on ENSO and tropical storms, hurricanes, and typhoons
  • Many vulnerability assessments undertaken using methodologies "poorly harmonized with local conditions"
  • Limited adaptive capacity of small island states.

Possible Regional Responses to Facilitate Adaptation to Climate Change for Small Island States

Policy Responses

  • A policy of regional cooperation and coordination
  • A policy of "owning" the issue of climate change and variability
  • A policy of maximizing the benefits of climate change
  • A policy to base plans and actions on factual understanding of climate change
  • A policy of mainstreaming climate change responses in national planning through adaptation of sustainable management practices
  • A policy of enhancing capacities to respond to the consequences of anticipated change in climate
  • A policy of enhancing regional water, soil, habitat, and food security

Priority Action Strategies

  • A strategy for capacity building, awareness-raising, and technical capacity enhancement
  • A strategy for development and application of appropriate methodologies and information sources
  • A strategy to identify, assess, and implement investment instruments relevant to adaptation
  • A strategy to support optional management responses to climate change at the national level
  • A strategy for regional support for integrated coastal zone management
  • A strategy to undertake regionally relevant research on impacts and adaptations to climate change

Source: Modified from Hay, 1997.


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