Climate change and Food Security in the Pacific Islands
School of Geography, The University of Melbourne, Australia, Tel:. +61-3-8344-0819,
fax +61-3-9349-4218, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Keywords: Small Islands, agriculture, fisheries, development, vulnerability
Barnett, J. 2019. ‘Climate Change and Food Security in the Pacific Islands’, in
Connell, J. and Lowitt, K. (eds) Food Security in Small Island States, Springer
Nature, Singapore: 25-38.
This chapter explores the risks that climate change poses to the food security of
individuals and communities in the Pacific Islands through analysis of risks to food
production, access, and utilization. It shows that climate change will adversely effect
food systems in the region, including the supply of food from agriculture and fisheries,
the ability of countries to import food, systems for the distribution of food, and the
ability of households to purchase and utilise food. In these ways climate change puts at
risk the very basic and universal need for people in the islands to have access to
sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times.
This chapter explores the risks that climate change poses to food security in the islands
of the South Pacific. Its focus is, for the most part, on social systems and the people
who shape and are shaped by them. This is, in a sense, a kind of ‘bottom up’
perspective, informed not so much by abstract models of climate and biophysical
systems, but by the author’s understanding of the everyday processes that make and
remake social life in the region. This is useful because it shifts the focus of analysis to
existing vulnerabilities to climate as a basis for determining future vulnerabilities – the
importance of which has been stressed by Ford and colleagues (2010).
The Pacific Islands
There are twenty-two island states and territories in the South Pacific, the combined
population of which is 11.3 million. Of these, 8.1 million reside in Papua New Guinea
(SPC 2018). Population growth, particularly in the Melanesian countries, is high, and
these countries additionally have considerable rates of rural to urban migration.
The total land area of all islands in the region is approximately 550,000 km2, which
contrasts markedly with the region’s combined exclusive economic zone of some 30 106
km2 (Overton 1999). The largest country is Papua New Guinea with a land area of
462,000 km2, while the smallest is Tokelau with a land area of 12 km2. The Melanesian
countries are, generally, large and mountainous with fertile soils and mineral resources.
The Polynesian and Micronesian islands vary in type from smaller volcanic islands to
low-lying coral atolls. Almost all of these islands are small, although they often have
extensive reef and lagoon systems that provide a considerable amount of protein to
communities. Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu are comprised entirely
of low-lying coral atolls. In all countries, capital cities and most other major urban
centres are situated on the coast, and most or all critical infrastructure is located in the
Gross Domestic Products in the region are low, ranging from US$ 10 million in Tokelau
to US$ 19 billion in Papua New Guinea (Pacific Community 2018). GDP per capita is
low in most countries, ranging from US$ 1,500 in Kiribati to US$ 31,000 in New
Caledonia. Kiribati, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are currently
classified as Least Developed Countries. Tourism is an important industry in some
countries, accounting for up to 47% of GDP in Fiji and Vanuatu, 22% in Kiribati and
Tonga, (Cheer et al. 2017). The equatorial countries receive income from licensing fees
paid by foreign operated fishing boats operating within their territorial waters, and that
accounts for up to 4o% of GDP in Kiribati and Tuvalu (ADB 2004). Primary industries
account for less than 30% of formal GDP in all countries in the region, and in most
countries its share is less than 20%, though these figures belie the large contribution
agriculture and fisheries make to the informal economy and livelihoods (UNDP 2014).
Nine of the region’s countries and territories are fully independent. Six are self-
governing and constitutionally independent, but with some form of association with
either the United States or New Zealand. Seven are dependent territories either of
France, the United States, or New Zealand. These political ties influence aid flows and
income from remittances. Most of the smaller Polynesian and Micronesian economies
are heavily dependent on aid. In the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the
Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, and Tuvalu aid accounts for at least one third of GDP.
Remittances sent from migrants living overseas (largely in Australia, New Zealand and
the United States) are also important. In 2016 remittances accounted for 10% of GDP in
Kiribati, 12% in Tuvalu, 14% in the Marshall Islands, 15% in Samoa, and 28% in
Tonga (World Bank 2017), though the real value of remittances in all countries in the
region are probably far larger than these estimates.
Pacific Island societies contend with an array of environmental problems, including:
land degradation, such as soil nutrient depletion and soil loss; deforestation due to
logging for timber exports, clearing for agriculture, and fuel wood collection;
biodiversity losses across a range of terrestrial and marine flora and fauna; depletion of
freshwater resources through saline incursions and contamination from urban,
agricultural and industrial sources; and coastal and marine degradation, including
coastal erosion, coral loss and coral bleaching, contracting artisanal fisheries, and
pollution of lagoons (Connell 2013). These environmental problems increase the
vulnerability of ecosystems to the effects of climate change.
Regional scale changes in climate
Projections of the possible changes in climate in the Pacific Islands region apply to the
region as a whole and not to specific countries, because the grid squares in General
Circulation Models are between 200 and 600 km2, which provides insufficient
resolution for the land areas of almost all the Pacific Islands. Projections from an
ensemble of global models gives some indication the range of changes in rainfall,
temperature and sea-level that may be expected in the region relative to the period
1986-2005, given modest increases in greenhouse gas emissions in the future (which are
taken from the IPCC Representative Concentration Pathways, specifically RCP4.5).
These models suggest that by the end of the century in the Southern Pacific air
temperatures will have increased by between1.1 and 1.5°C, annual precipitation will
have increased by up to 4%, and sea-levels will have risen by between 0.5 and 0.6 of a
meter (Nurse et al. 2014). A 32 cm rise in sea-level is considered to have serious
implications for the continued viability of ecological and social systems on low-lying
coral atolls (Pearce and Teuatabo 2000). These projections may be conservative given
both the possibility of higher concentrations of emissions and observations of
temperature and sea-level increases that suggest higher rates of change in recent decades
(Lough et al. 2011, Nurse et al. 2014).
However, mean changes are perhaps less indicative of future risk than variations in
extremes of temperature, rainfall, winds and sea-levels, which are all likely to increase
in coming decades (Nurse et al. 2014). For example, with precipitation it is less the
mean annual changes, and rather the frequency and intensity of rainfall events that
matter most, particularly given that the region is prone to floods and droughts. Water for
agriculture is almost entirely supplied by rainfall rather than by irrigation systems. More
rainfall is expected in summer – which is the wet period in the region, and there may be
less rainfall in the already dry months. This has implications for sustaining crops
throughout the year. Rainfall events are also likely to be more intense, and possibly less
frequent, with implications for flooding and drought events (Nurse et al. 2014).
The risks to coral atolls, and to coral systems throughout the region, is a function not
just of rising sea-levels, but also of rapid changes in sea-surface temperature which
cause coral reef mortality through coral bleaching. Evidence suggests that tropical sea-
surface temperatures have been rising over the past 50 years, with an increase in
extremes of sea-surface temperatures associated with increasingly severe bleaching
episodes (Hughes et al. 2018a). Kench et al. (2005) suggest that undisturbed reef
systems may persist under conditions of rising sea-levels and rapid increases in sea-
surface temperature, and that it is human disturbances on reefs that make them
vulnerable to climate change. Bleaching of reefs causes erosion of shorelines through
changes in sedimentation. It also impacts on artisanal fisheries, and is a factor in
ciguatera fish poisoning (Hughes et al., 2018b, Hales et al. 1999).
Associated with these projected changes in temperature, precipitation and sea-level are
projected changes in regional climate systems and extreme events. Of particular
importance to development in the region is ENSO, which in El Niño years brings
drought to most of the region. For example the 1997-98 El Niño caused widespread
drought and subsequent food shortages in the islands west of the international dateline.
Agricultural losses in Fiji were valued at US$ 65 million, and some 260,000 people in
Papua New Guinea were in a life threatening condition due to depleted food supply
(WMO 1999). In Niue the 1983 El Niño resulted in a 60% decrease in mean annual
rainfall, forest fires, and a dramatic fall in agricultural exports and a dramatic increase in
food imports. Modelling studies suggest that climate change may double the frequency
of El Niño events in the future (Cai et al. 2014)
The ENSO phenomenon has a significant influence on tropical cyclone frequency and
possibly also on intensity. El Niño years tend to increase the frequency of tropical
cyclones in islands to the east of the international dateline. While the relationship
between climate change and tropical cyclones is still highly uncertain, there is evidence
that they may become more intense in the future – meaning that such cyclones may last
longer, exhibit higher wind speeds and unleash more rainfall (Walsh et al. 2016). In
many Pacific Islands cyclones are a cause of mortality and injury. They also cause
massive financial losses. For example, in recent years Cyclone Pam which struck
Vanuatu in 2015 caused 11 deaths and damages equal to about 60% of GDP, and
Cyclone Winston which struck Fiji in 2016 caused the deaths of 44 people and $460
million in damages (Finau et al. 2018, Handmer and Iveson 2017, Marto et al. 2018).
In 2004 Cyclone Heta in Niue destroyed 43 houses that were more than 25 m above sea-
level, as well as the national hospital, national museum, and the bulk fuel storage tanks
(Government of Niue 2004). As well as wind damage, and damage from increased
rainfall and flooding, cyclones induce storm surges which can reach up to six meters in
height, and, in the case of cyclone Heta in Niue, waves in excess of 30 m in height.
Barker (2000) goes so far as to argue that in Niue cyclones have powerfully shaped the
structure of contemporary society through their effects on out-migration and aid
It is the possibility of increases in the frequency and intensity of such hazards, rather
than changes in mean conditions, that poses the most immediate danger to Pacific
Islands. Barnett and Campbell (2010) suggest that a critical factor for social-ecological
systems in the region will be a decrease in the return times of extreme events, which in
turn will reduce the ability of systems to recover, causing long-term declines in welfare.
These changes in extremes will be compounded by changes in mean sea-level,
temperature, and rainfall, and both these changes in extremes and mean conditions pose
dangers to the Pacific islands through their impacts on agriculture, fisheries, health,
food security, economic development, and population movements. Of these, the
following discussion is limited to the issues of food production and food security. In
terms of food production the focus is on the two most important local sources of food
for most Pacific Islanders – agriculture and fisheries.
Impacts on agriculture
In most Pacific Islands agriculture is primarily conducted for subsistence purposes, and
in some cases for sale to domestic and international markets. For the most part the value
of agricultural exports is small relative to imports. Few households meet their own food
needs entirely through their own production, but rely in part on markets for at least
some of their food needs.
Agricultural production in the Pacific islands is likely to be adversely affected by
climate change in a number of ways. For coastal communities, the effects of erosion,
increased contamination of groundwater and estuaries by saltwater incursion, cyclones
and storm surges, heat stress, and drought may individually or in combination
undermine food production. Cyclones are a significant cause of lost agricultural
production, for example, Cyclone Ami caused over US$ 35 million in lost crops in Fiji
in 2003, and thirteen years later cyclone Winston caused over US$100 m in crop losses
(McKenzie et al. 2005, FAO 2016). Drought presents problems to agriculture
everywhere in the region, particularly given the lack of irrigation. The increased risk of
flooding in river catchments also threatens food production, for example, severe
flooding of the Wainibuka and Rewa Rivers in Fiji in April 2004 caused damages to
between 50-70% of crops (Fiji Government 2004). Increasingly intense rainfall events,
coupled with ongoing processes of deforestation and longer dry spells, may all impact
on soil fertility.
The effects of climate change on critical infrastructure may also undermine agriculture
for both subsistence and commercial purposes. Damage to equipment for processing
and storing food can undermine the effective supply of food, and damages to roads, rail,
and vehicles due to storms and cyclones can disrupt the supply of goods to markets,
undermining the livelihoods of rural growers. Large scale economic changes can also
undermine food production. Impacts on production in key sectors such as tourism, and
increasing public expenditure on repairing and replacing lost infrastructure may all have
impacts on employment and incomes. This in turn could suppress demand for locally
grown foods sold in local markets.
Traditionally Pacific Island communities grew multiple crops, which tended to confer
some resilience in food supply as not all crops were affected by specific hazards such as
a drought or cyclone (Campbell 1990; Elmqvist 2000). Repeated attempts to develop
monocultural cash crops such as copra, coffee, and sugar cane, combined with the
effects of the cash economy and penetration of markets of often cheaper if less healthy
foods, have all served to weaken the diversity and intensity of local production in many
places. The effects of these changes have been increased dependence on the market for
food, decreased resilience of food supply in the face of hazards (given low incomes and
relatively high food prices), and a ‘nutrition transition’ in the region associated with
increased rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease (Popkin et al. 2001). Food aid in
response to droughts has been shown to further increase dependence on poor quality
foods and hasten the nutrition tradition (Ahlgren et al. 2014).
These changes are all functions of increased penetration of international markets and of
development assistance of various kinds, as well as increased urbanization and in some
cases, decreases in security of land tenure (Colding et al. 2003; Clarke and Thaman
1993). The problem is that these attempted shifts towards modern agricultural
economies and, more generally affluent industrial societies, have failed to deliver the
kinds of resilient agricultural and food systems that developed countries enjoy, whilst at
the same time undermining the resilience associated with traditional, agricultural
systems. Vulnerability is then manifested in the seemingly permanent transitional nature
of Pacific societies.
Impacts on fisheries
Given that the ratio of land area to sea area in the Pacific region is 1:300, it is not
surprising that fisheries play a critical role in food supply and economic development in
the Pacific islands. Fish is an important source of protein for most coastal communities
in the Pacific (Bell et al. 2009). Per capita consumption of fish in the region is very high
by global standards, with an average of 70 kg of fish being consumed per person per
year across the region in the early 1990s (Gillett et al. 2001). Fisheries also provide
income to many coastal communities who harvest shellfish and shells, corals,
crustaceans, marine plants, finfish and other species. Inland freshwater fisheries are also
important sources of food in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Fiji.
In terms of economic development, the value of landed tuna caught in the waters of the
Western and Central Pacific ocean is approximately US5.8 billion, with a final market
value of approximately US$ 22 billion (FFA 2015, Galland et al. 2016). Of this, around
80% is caught in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Pacific island countries, although
only about 10% of this catch is landed in the Pacific islands (FFA 2015). Most of the
fish caught is by distant water fishing nations, which pay Pacific Island governments
some US$270 million a year in access fees (FFA 2015). These fees are an important
source of government revenue, accounting for up to 40% in the case of Kiribati, and
over 10% in the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Tokelau and Tuvalu (Gillett
Fishing is very important to the economies of some countries, accounting, for example,
for 56% of GDP in Kiribati and 26% in the Marshall Islands (Gillett 2009). For some
countries, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, the remittances sent home from
workers on fishing boats are also important. Gillett et al. (2001) estimated that the
industrial tuna fishery accounts for up to 25,000 jobs in the region, and that subsistence
fishing is critical to livelihoods of up to 20 times that number of people.
Fishing is a combination of luck and skill. Pacific Islanders are highly skilled at fishing,
with many societies having a rich body of traditional knowledge about where and how
to catch fish (see for example Hooper 1983; Johannes 1978). There is considerable
uncertainty about the effects of climate change on the artisanal fisheries upon which
many Pacific Islanders depend for food and income. It is important to note that
increasing temporal and spatial variability in fish abundance caused by the degradation
of reefs and mangroves, and the turbidity, salinity and temperature of water due to
climate change is possible. These changes extend the abilities of Pacific Islanders to
sustain fish catches. The effect of increasing variability in abundance may affect
nutrition and the incomes of coastal populations dependent on artisanal fisheries. It may
also increase the time and fuel costs associated with catching fish, with opportunity
costs for other livelihood strategies.
In terms of the tuna fishery, changes in ENSO conditions cause variations in catch per
unit of effort rates across the South Pacific (SPC 2006). If climate change causes ENSO
events to become more frequent or more severe, then this may in turn affect the amount
of fish caught in the Exclusive Economic Zones of the equatorial Pacific Islands and the
revenue they earn from access fees paid by distant water fishing nations. Climate
change may also cause an extension of the present range of tuna to higher latitudes, a
decrease in net productivity, increase variability in the catches and so decrease catch per
unit of effort with subsequent impacts on the costs of production and prices, and
potentially increase pressure on the most valuable species of bigeye and yellowfin in an
attempt to offset increasing costs (SPC 2006).
Increases in storm damages due to climate change in the region may also impact on
fisheries development through damage to and loss of boats, boat launching facilities,
fuel facilities, and fish storage and processing facilities. For example, cyclone Heta
which struck Niue in 2004, caused severe damage to sea tracks from which fisherman
launch canoes, as well as to both of the derricks used for lifting small vessels into and
out of the water, with the result being that fishing for subsistence purposes ceased for
some weeks. So, through changes in fish habitats, migration patterns, and in fishing-
related infrastructure, climate change poses significant risks to fisheries and to the
people and islands that depend on them for food and income.
Impacts on food security
Food production, as specifically identified in Article 2, is only one component of food
security. Food security is defined as a situation “when all people, at all times, have
physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets
their dietary and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 2002). Food
security has three components: food availability, ability to access food, and the ability to
There are macro and micro dimensions to food security. Macro dimensions include
issues such as the total supply of food in country and the prices of food, which is a
function of local production and imports. In as much as common illnesses in developing
countries, such as malaria and gastro-intestinal disorders, impede a body’s ability to
effectively utilize food, then public health issues associated with water quality and
disease control are also important. The ability of people to purchase food is also a
function of markets for local products and labor, including the costs of labor relative to
the costs of food. Micro issues include the ability of a household to grow its own food,
or to purchase food, and the health of people as this affects their ability to effectively
utilize food. People’s food needs include a sufficient supply of calories, protein, and
micronutrients, and so the types of food that can be accessed is also important for food
There is also a temporal dimension to food security. People who are poor may be
chronically food insecure – meaning they consistently consume insufficient amounts of
food. People may also be generally food secure, but vulnerable to periods of food
insecurity arising from, for example, disasters undermining their own production for
subsistence purposes and for sale to markets, or sudden changes in food prices and/or
wages. When large scale food crises occur – as they still do in parts of Africa – it is the
chronically food insecure who are most at risk of death.
Because food security is a function of food production, economic growth and
employment, poverty and public health, it is perhaps a far better indicator of
‘dangerous’ climate change than ‘food production’ as mentioned in Article 2. For this
reason the possible impacts of climate change on food security in the Pacific islands
should be considered.
In the Pacific islands at present the situation with respect to food security is not as
serious as in parts of South Asia and Africa, in large part because poverty is generally
not as acute. There are problems with micronutrient deficiencies in many communities
where access to an adequate range of healthy foods is restricted by either local growing
conditions or the types and costs of foods available on the market. A part of the problem
here is that penetration of local markets by imported foods has resulted in the
importation of cheap, poor quality foods of little nutritional value. This results in
increasing rates of non-communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart
However, there are signs that food insecurity may increase in the future (Sharma 2006;
Bell et al. 2009), and, when considering the possible impacts of climate change in the
region, an increase in food insecurity is a distinct possibility. Climate change may
negatively impact on each of the broad determinants of food security – namely food
production, economic growth and poverty, and health.
Bell et al. (2009) posit that the current dependence on fish by many Pacific
communities leaves them vulnerable to food insecurity in the future. The coastal
fisheries available in most states do not currently have the capacity to provide more fish
to meet the needs of future population growth and urban migration, and so rural fish
consumption will decline as population increases. The risk of overfishing may be
increased by pressure on rural communities to use their resources for income generation
as well as subsistence. In conjunction with changes to the availability of fish as a result
of climate change, there is an urgent need for the diversification of supply in order to
make rural communities more resilient to climate change and extreme events, and help
rebuild overexploited fisheries resources.
Across the region there has been in the last ten years a decline in per capita food
production and an increase in dependence on imported foods (Sharma 2006). In all
countries almost all cereals are imported and imports of cereals have steadily increased
since 1991, exports of food products have decreased, and trade deficits have increased
(Sharma 2006). Declining per capita food production is a function of: population
growth; insufficient private and public investment in agricultural production; limitations
on production due to water scarcity and effective scarcity of land (due to absolute
shortages, or insecurity of tenure discouraging capital investment); increasing costs of
inputs relative to the value of production; disasters; and rural to urban migration. Total
food availability in the Pacific islands, then, is increasingly becoming a function of the
ability to pay for food imports.
The ability to pay for food imports at an aggregate level is a function of national
income, and so assessing the impacts of climate change on food security in part involves
assessing its impacts on the ability of Pacific Islands countries to pay for food imports
as populations grow. The impacts of climate change in labor markets in New Zealand,
Australia and the United States could adversely affect countries which are dependent on
remittances, but the impacts are highly uncertain. At least for those Pacific Islanders
working in agriculture and agriculture-dependent industries there may be grounds for
concern as these industries in donor countries may also be impacted by climate change.
Nevertheless, the assumed higher capacity to adapt to climate change in the developed
donor countries would seem to insulate the Pacific islands against declines in
remittances due to climate change.
For those island countries that are heavily dependent on aid, the impacts of climate
change on the capacity of donors to sustain aid flows, and the motives for those flows,
is also important. In general aid to the countries in the region is delivered for numerous
reasons varying from country to country, including for strategic, historical,
constitutional, economic, and humanitarian reasons. Assessing the impacts of climate
change on these kinds of flows is beyond the scope of this chapter, however we might
surmise that the strategic and historical/constitutional reasons for giving aid are
relatively independent of the effects of climate change. Economic reasons may change
depending on the distribution of economic impacts within and among donor countries,
and that aid for humanitarian reasons may increase as climate change results in more
damages due to disasters and increasing poverty.
This discussion of aid flows and remittances and their likely changes is simplistic and
uncertain, but it does go to show that some of the more important factors in the
economic impacts of climate change in many Pacific island countries concern changes
outside of those countries, and that climate change may have little impact on the ability
of those countries that are dependent on aid and remittances to purchase food imports.
Yet this tentative conclusion assumes that these extra-territorial flows will increase as
demand for them increases due to population growth, rising expectations, and increasing
costs due to damages caused by climate change.
There may be some significant costs to island economies due to climate change. For
example, the World Bank (2001) estimates that by 2050 damages from climate change
could cost Tarawa atoll in Kiribati US$ 8-16 million, or 17-34% of current GDP.
Another study estimates that the economic impacts of climate change on Pacific Island
economies may be “so profound that they dwarf any strategic issue currently
confronting a major peacetime economy” (Hoegh-Guldberg and Greenpeace Australia
Pacific 2000). Those disasters such as cyclones and droughts already have significant
costs suggest that increases in their intensity or frequency in the future will place further
demands at both donor and household-level to substitute for lost crops, income,
infrastructure, and housing.
The region’s other main source of income, aside from agriculture, fisheries, aid, and
remittances, is tourism. Tourism, too, is sensitive to climate change. Impacts on tourism
have yet to be seriously examined, but it is believed that the industry may be affected
directly, for example, through the loss of beaches, and indirectly, for example through
milder winters in traditional markets reducing the motivation to take vacations abroad
(Becken 2005). Extreme events will also be increasingly costly for tourism
infrastructure, and may dampen demand for travel to the Pacific islands. Potential
tourists may fear for their safety. If climate change results in the spread of malaria and
dengue fever to tourist dependent countries such as the Cook Islands, Palau and Fiji,
then this too may decrease demand as tourists may seek alternative holiday destinations.
Rising airfares due to increasing fuel costs associated with potential policy measures to
implement the Kyoto Protocol and post-Kyoto agreements, coupled with increasing
scarcity of jet fuel, may also undermine demand for tourism.
So, some of the region’s main forms of income generation – agriculture, fisheries, and
tourism – are likely to be adversely effected by climate change. It follows then that
employment in these sectors may also suffer, either through long-term contraction in the
number of jobs, short-term fluctuations and/or increasing casualization of jobs in
response to increasing variability in production, or through downward pressure on
wages as employment opportunities decrease and demand for jobs grows due to
population growth. The impacts of climate change on these key sectors may also have
other important secondary effects. For instance, not only farmers’ livelihoods are at risk
from climate change, but also those whose livelihoods depend on agricultural
production, such as input, transport, information and credit suppliers. Impacts in one
sector may, in turn, impact on others. For example, declining incomes from agriculture
may cause migration to urban areas, increasing urban poverty and placing increasing
demand on urban services such as running water, disease prevention programs, and
health care. If climate change results in economic contraction and increasing
unemployment, then the ability of States to provide these services may also weaken,
further exacerbating poverty and food insecurity.
Thus, through its impacts on agriculture, fisheries and tourism, climate change may
increase levels of chronic and transitory poverty, and, subsequently, decrease the ability
of households to purchase food. This, coupled with potential impacts on household food
production for subsistence purposes, suggests that not only may per capita food
availability contract due to the combined effects of climate change on domestic
production and the ability to pay for food imports, so too may the ability of people to
Finally, it is important to consider the impacts of climate change on health as this too
affects food security. In most countries of the region people are relatively healthy
compared to other developing regions of the world. Nevertheless there are problems of
undernutrition in parts of Melanesia, and in some of the more remote islands in a
number of countries. Malaria is a major cause of illness in Melanesia, and across the
region outbreaks of dengue fever occur. Disasters also cause injury and loss of life, and
there are problems of diarrhea and other water borne diseases such as cholera in a
number of islands and in urban areas. Incidences of Ciguatera (fish poisoning) appear to
be increasing. Climate change may extend the spread of malaria and dengue fever as the
factors that encourage the breeding of the mosquitoes that carry these diseases are
influenced by climate. Warming in Papua New Guinea, for example, is likely to cause a
contraction of the cooler malaria free zone in the highlands. There are also demonstrated
positive associations between temperature increases and diarrhea, and between warmer
sea-surface temperatures and Ciguatera outbreaks (Singh et al. 2001; Hales et al. 1999).
Heat stress, increased injuries, and deaths from extreme events are also likely to result.
Finally, the health services in most Pacific Island countries are ill-equipped and already
struggling to cope with existing health problems. They are, therefore, unlikely to be able
to adequately respond to the increased health burden of climate change.
Many rural Pacific islanders are simultaneously engaged in some sale of products or
labour for cash, as well as gardening or fishing to meet a proportion of their own food
needs. In some cases hunting is also undertaken (Meleisea 1996). This confers some
degree of food security, as it means one or two of these activities can still meet basic
food needs. This diversity of livelihood strategies in part explains why in even the
poorest communities severe disasters do not result in mass mortality. The risk to food
security is that climate change may cause chronic and or sporadic contractions in the
food people access through agriculture, fisheries, and the market, creating in turn
chronic and transitory food problems. These problems of access, coupled with possible
increases in illness due to climate change, mean that climate change poses real risks to
food security in the region.
To determine what kinds of climate impacts may be ‘dangerous’ is a question of values.
Different societies value different things, and the degradation or loss of things that are
most valued to a society can rightfully be called ‘dangerous’. The problem for a global
convention such as the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change is
that this diversity of values means that it is exceedingly difficult to find a common
metric of ‘danger’ to which all Parties agree. The problem is akin to the problem of
human rights, where some rights are to some extent culturally specific, but where it is
accepted in principle that there are universal ‘basic’ rights – such as freedom from
torture (Shue 1980). In this vein, there may be some universal ‘dangers’ as well. In
terms of the three sectors specified in Article 2 of the UNFCCC, damage to ecosystems
may not be a concern of all people, nor even may ‘food production’ or ‘economic
development’ as these are larger system conditions that people may or not may not
identify as being valuable. Yet it is a reasonable proposition that all people value the
choice of having enough to eat – and so food security perhaps offers a useful and near
universal basis upon which to assess ‘dangerous’ climate change.
Given this, climate change is dangerous to the Pacific islands. It seems likely to impact
on agricultural production for both subsistence and commercial purposes, undermining
both local availability of food as well as the ability of people and societies to purchase
food. The impacts on production may be both long-term declines, as well as short-term
variations. The other major sector of food production in the region is fisheries, which,
like agriculture, supports domestic consumption as well as domestic and international
trade. Climate change may also have negative impacts on fisheries, although the nature
of change may be less one of mean declines in abundance, but rather increasing
variability of supply. Thus, even considering the criteria of food production, climate
change is dangerous to the Pacific islands. Yet it is the compounding effects on the
systems that determine food security in the region and thus the larger cause for concern.
Through its impacts on production, the ability of countries to import food and the ability
of households to purchase food, and human health, climate change puts at risk the very
basic and universal need for people in the islands to have access to sufficient, safe and
nutritious food at all times.
This research was supported by Australian Research Council Grant FT120100208
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