Climate Change: An Existential Security Threat in the Pacific – Tevita Motulalo

As underground water tables become poisoned with salt water intrusion, agricultural fields whither, and receding shorelines are further punctured by super cyclones and crackling droughts, the Pacific Islands are subtly moving beyond the early stages of an existential crisis. Unfortunately, climate change is just the latest in the series of non-traditional security challenges besieging Pacific Island counties, their citizens, and how they relate to the world. In aggregate, these non-traditional security challenges threaten the very survival of Pacific Island countries. Not since the Assured Destruction of the Cold War has the region faced such an existential problem.

The Geography of Island Life

For the most part, the Pacific Island countries have small populations, limited terrestrial natural resources, very limited land area, and are removed and isolated from Asia and America into the heart of the Pacific. For example, Tuvalu has a population of about 10,800 (2012), with a total land area of 26 square kilometers. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate country – an equal a member of the international community alongside the demographic billionaires of China and India.

Although 95% of the South Pacific’s populations are concentrated on the continental islands of Melanesia, the wider numbers of sovereign states are in Polynesia. As small island countries, they are characterized by thin strategic depth, which carries few or limited capacities to withstand an onslaught of traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Furthermore, the sovereign states of the South Pacific haven’t managed to effectively leverage their combined votes into a powerful block. Their often fragmented international engagement has made it even more difficult to initiate, pursue, and carry through meaningful economic and political commitment in any particular direction.

Like any other countries, the Pacific Island countries rely heavily on their national institutions and domestic economies to provide the security and livelihood that gives them a meaningful existence. But the Pacific Island countries, especially those in the South Pacific, have always had their viability as sovereign and prosperous members of the global international community in question.

Declining growth, bulging populations, under-developed infrastructures, a hemorrhaging skilled-worker pool, widening separation from global business and trade, and the effects of exploitative economics have pinned down development and security across the region. These systemic failures have meant that the Pacific Island countries cannot secure the necessary human and physical resources to adequately respond to traditional and non-traditional security threats – even those that bring into question their very survival.

Untangling the Threats

Traditionally, security threats have been taken as institutional challenges to state survival that emanate from other ‘like’ units, i.e. other state-like actors. It is for this reason that security threats have long been seen as somewhat predictable constants. This is also why there has been a general preoccupation with political, military and economic threats at the expense of all other kinds of security threats.

It should not be surprising then that current security mechanisms across the Pacific Island countries only account for certain variables. Specifically, they are designed to withstand certain tolerable and predictable traditional security threats. Beyond these events, the whole system starts to come apart.

To fix the problem, we need to develop new thinking. The current governance institutions in the South Pacific were developed as mirrors of the dominant structures common in larger countries, down to the names and functions of government ministries. The range of challenges that these institutions are geared to address simply don’t take into account the current threat survival landscape. Nor do they account for a fundamentally different security environment than the one faced by larger countries. For example, while natural disaster threats may be taken as a minor to moderate challenge in larger countries, they are foundational security threats for South Pacific countries.

A New Future

Geography is the foundation upon which state activities play out. And, this ‘theater of operations’ was, until recently, taken as a given. In the 1960s, few thought that entire Pacific Island countries might someday be uninhabitable – outside of a major nuclear conflict. Climate change has changed all of that. The foundation is starting to shift.

On the 2nd of January, 2014, Category 5 Severe Tropical Cyclone Ian made landfall in Tonga and in six hours wiped out 15% of the Kingdom’s GDP. Water, power and communications infrastructures were knocked offline, a state of emergency was declared over the area, and it took the Navy weeks to get from island to island in the archipelago just to gather information, assess damages, and deliver much needed relief. Up to 90% of agricultural fields were destroyed. It’s the single biggest destructive storm in living memory, and those in the region are still struggling to get back to pre-Ian state.

Our physical environment was considered constant and reliable in previous ‘traditional security’ thinking. But, it is now a potentially dynamic variable. This exposes new vulnerabilities and inconsistencies. The cascading knock-on effect of security threats that materialize during natural disasters should serve as a warning. While a Pacific Island country might be able to recover from cyclones and droughts, they might not be able to survive catastrophic salt water intrusion across an entire island chain.

Moving forward, Pacific Island countries need to properly conceptualize climate change as a fundamental and existential security threat. This will be the first step towards policy response. Without an effective strategy to counter climate change, nothing in the South Pacific is secure. It will start with making sure the economies across the region are able to withstand these pressures on their own. It will start with realizing that growth equals security.

Tevita Motulalo is a journalist, educator, and policy analyst. He is Deputy Editor at the Kele’a newspaper and co-host of the weekly Tonga and the World radio show on 88.1 FM. He also teaches journalism at the Tonga Institute of Higher Education and is a non-resident Senior Researcher at Gateway House (the Indian Council on Global Relations) in Mumbai, where he specialises in Pacific geopolitics and security.

Guest commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr CC

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One thought on “Climate Change: An Existential Security Threat in the Pacific – Tevita Motulalo

  1. Just read 40 page paper by Tevita Motulalo (“India’s Strategic Imperative in the South Pacific”). Not just merely “interesting” (a hackneyed adjective at the best and the worst of times) but especially well done. I hope that Indian policy makers and thinkers at the highest levels read Tevita’s well crafted paper and give it the attention that it deserves.

    I wrote a now long forgotten paper on a linked subject–God, what has it been?–almost 30 years ago, published by Oxford in 1990 (Lim Teck Ghee and Mark j. Valencia (eds.), Conflict over Natural Resources in South-east Asia and the Pacific, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 182-247.

    Having just read Tevita’s paper I am inclined to go back to my 1990 paper and bring it up to date.

    I don’t have contact info for Tevita so may I make this request of whoever retrieves this note: please pass it on to Tevita. Mahalo nui.

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