Climate change now reality in the South Pacific
Dramatic events unfolding in the South Pacific should shape our integrated response to climate change asserts UoN Vice Chancellor Professor Nick Petford
On Feb 2016, the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere to make landfall struck Fiji and Northern Tonga. In its wake, Tropical Storm Winston left 44 dead and a clean-up bill estimated at $1.38bn. In the northern tropics, similar events have unfolded in recent years, with Hurricanes Ivan, Irma and Maria decimating large parts of the Caribbean. The frequency and heightened intensity of these storms is being driven by warming of the world’s oceans due to climate forcing.
These island chains, separated as they are by thousands of miles of ocean, are nonetheless united in an unusual yet powerful way — through their universities. Both Fiji National University and the University of the West Indies, along with the University of the South Pacific, are members of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU). The ACU is the world’s oldest international university network, set up in 1913. With over 500 member institutions in 50 countries, its mission is to promote and support excellence in higher education throughout the Commonwealth and beyond.
It was not surprising then that climate change was very much to the fore at the 20th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, held in Nadi, Fiji on 19–22 February. Its theme, Sustainability and Resilience: Can Education Deliver, is relevant not just to the commonwealth but through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, to the wider world.
An important part of the conference was a meeting of the Small States of the Commonwealth (populations of 1.5 million or less), that include Fiji, the wider South Pacific and Caribbean, but also continental countries Botswana and Namibia at risk of drought, to focus on an integrated response to climate change.
For small island states, as shown by tropical storms Winston and Irma, climate is an immediate problem. Irrespective of whether developed nations take action in the near to mid-term to reduce carbon emissions, tropical counties in the Caribbean and Pacific will be on the sharp end of potential rising sea levels, storm surges and flooding. Allied to this, increased ocean acidity and its impact of marine flora and fauna are well documented. For island states, detrimental impact on the blue economy, tourism, economic growth and sustainable development is a real risk if action is not taken.
Key to this is the Paris Agreement on climate change pledging to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times and best case restrict any rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, BP in its annual Statistical Review of World Energy expects carbon emissions to rise by 10% by 2040 despite global oil consumption most likely peaking by late 2030. India may soon overtake China as the fastest growing energy market, thus providing a real opportunity for leadership across the Commonwealth to mitigate the worst predicted outcomes of climate change. Encouragingly, renewable energy looks set to become the fastest growing global fuel source in the near term. But meeting the Paris agreement is by no means certain.
For these reasons, an independent session highlighting the unique role of universities in building resilience in small island states was convened, backed up with evidence from leading experts from the region on how best to meet this challenge and help governments strengthen climate research and protect those most at risk. In particular the session sought to address what lessons could be learned from recovery efforts after disaster strikes and how universities, working in partnership, can best enable societies to become more resilient.
A key outcome was a commitment to establish a Commonwealth Climate Research Resilience Network, bringing together like minded institutions to share best practice, develop research and training programmes and provide mutual support if possible before (where prediction allows), and in the critical 72 hours after disaster strikes. But a coordinated response goes further than assuring high quality business continuity plans are in place. During discussions the importance of preserving IT infrastructure and social media, both as a communications tool and resource to provide a digital archive of events, became clear, along with a need to acknowledge and respect the inherent resilience of local communities.
The education of people and the health of the planet are inexorably linked. The new network, linking the diverse but complementary expertise and experience across Commonwealth Universities, has potential to make a unique contribution to disaster management in general with an ultimate aim to reduce risk and save lives. We look forward to seeing this theme developed at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London this April.