Don’t see Pacific Islanders only as victims of climate change says NZ expert

People, including Pacific Islanders, forced to move because of climate change urgently need to be meaningfully protected to be able to choose to move or stay with dignity.

That’s the view of climate mobility researcher Dr. Dalila Gharbaoui, from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, who is this week giving a public presentation on the topic of climate mobility in the Pacific.

“It is also urgent to address climate mobility beyond…assumptions that victimize communities, especially in the Global South,” Gharbaoui told Cosmos. She says we must understand the Pacific’s “diversity of mobilities and immobilities practices alongside understanding their rich history of climate adaptation.

“It’s really about listening to their own voices especially from the youngest generations. Examples include the famous slogan ‘We are not drowning we are Fighting’ from civil society youth climate activists Pacific Climate Warriors and many others.”

Gharbaoui’s talk is titled ‘Do we really have to move? Rethinking climate mobility’ and she asks: ‘As climate change and accelerating rising water threatens low-lying islands and coastal regions across the world, is moving the only solution?’ By examining the portrayal of ‘climate migrants,’ her talk aims to broaden our understanding of adaptation futures through the lens of equity and dignity for all.

“Moving is a last resort solution and should be done only when all the other options available to adapt in place have been exhausted,” Gharbaoui says.

“It is crucial to give communities the choice to decide what their adaptation future will be, listen to what their needs are, and work alongside them to understand what ‘adaptive mechanisms’ they already have in place, embedded into their traditional knowledge for generations, especially in regions such as the Pacific where there is so much ancestral expertise in addressing environmental impacts.

“What we call today ‘Nature-based solutions’ are positive progress towards a response to climate change that is moving towards a more holistic and interconnected approach, but these solutions are not new for regions such as the Pacific.”

Nature based Solutions (NbS) is a relative new term, coined by the World Bank in the 1990’s, and is sometimes also referred to as ‘soft engineering,’ or ‘green-grey infrastructure’ and includes projects like natural sea wall mangrove protection.

Gharbaoui says it’s time to move away from preconceived “one-size-fits-all” solutions: “imported from Geneva or New York” that are not appropriate to the local context. “There is a real value to combine the best of existing technology and sciences with deep understanding of nature systems in place.

“Nature-based solutions are increasingly trendy in the international governance arena, and it is, of course, a positive recognition that solutions to climate change are in nature itself. But to avoid reproducing the status quo and power imbalances it is important to make sure climate response is enabled through local empowerment.”

“But the focus on functional ecosystems biodiversity conservation needs to go alongside incorporation of social justice, human agency and community cohesion at its core. It is a great achievement to finally start moving away from predominant hard engineering responses to sea level rise, as [these] structures can in turn impact the environment.

“Some of the questions we should be asking are: How communities get to contribute to designing those solutions, how engagement took place and how is it practically implemented in communities, so in a nutshell, what is the actual added value on the ground.

“When we say “local”, there is so much diversity within one region, within countries and within a single locality so it is important for [those addressing] sea level rise to be informed by existing knowledge of resilience within communities and what specific needs are there to ensure we are responding to climate change in the most meaningful way for the impacted community.

“What research shows is that Pacific people certainly do not consider themselves as disempowered victims of climate change. People have always moved and will always move to respond to a series of challenges or just by choice.

“Staying in place is also considered as a basic response to crisis situation as not everyone wants or have the means to move.

“Climate Change exacerbates existing tensions forcing people to leave their homes, village, communities, temporarily or permanently, and is increasingly triggering people to move or stay in place to adapt to environmental impacts.

“Despite decades of research on this field of study, the research community is only starting to discover the wide range and scenarios of environmental mobilities and immobilities as it is a dynamic phenomenon in constant transformation.”

“Moving to adapt to the environment has been part of ancestral knowledges and practices for generations. Rather than victimising the Global South, we should rather focus on collaboration on equal grounds and empowerment that recognises wider understandings of resilience, sense of place, and innovative approaches to sovereignty,” she says. It is important to explore the diverse experiences of climate (im)mobilities to reimagine a future that prioritises adaptation through equity and dignity.

“It would be good to remember that we are, in fact, not facing a “climate crisis” that will eventually end. Climate change is also not a future issue that is only happening far from us. Climate change is affecting everyone at different scale, and we are already learning or will learn to live with it.

“However, regions that have historically been adapting to environmental impacts have a lot of knowledge to share and it is about shifting to a more inclusive and holistic approach where we would also learn from rich histories of adaptation and resilience to inform structural changes on the making that are supporting on equal grounds the sustainability of our planet and our collective futures.”

The public presentation by Dr Gharbaoui is 7pm – 8pm (local time) on Wednesday 29 May in the Central lecture theatre University of Canterbury, Christchurch.It will be livestreamed and later posted online.  UC Connect free public lectures | University of Canterbury

Pacific Islanders embrace renewables – but slowly.

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The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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