Climate Change and Adaptation in the Pacific Islands: Watering Down Women’s Security?

Recently the Centre for Climate and Security posed a provocative new question for our near Pacific Islands region, when it asked: Is climate change driving a new security architecture in the Pacific?.  In answering this query, the analysis made reference to the Australian Government’s Defense White Paper 2013. Here it has been predicted that existing regional security challenges such as unstable and sometimes unaccountable governance, and a widespread citizen marginalization from organized politics, will be compounded by the worsening social impacts of environmental insecurity in the coming decade.  Such views make the question of climate change a issue of strategic concern for Pacific Island states and for the region’s near neighbours.

Photo by UNFPAsia. Retrieved from, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Photo by UNFPAsia. Retrieved from, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Pacific Islanders are often described as living at the ‘front line’ of global climate change.  Their particular vulnerability to a global future of more frequent extreme weather events such as flooding, cyclones and drought, rising sea levels, and other forms of ecological damage such as rising salinity in soil and fresh water sources has seen them often likened to ‘canaries in a coal mine’.  Their plight, depicted in recent films such as the Hungry Tide, Paradise Drowned, and There Once was an Island, illustrates a ‘fragile paradise’ doomed to extinction.  Alongside images of habitat and food garden inundation, we also see palm trees swaying in a dappled sunlight, Islanders performing traditional dance, their children running playfully along the water’s edge, and aerial shots which show the terrestrial insecurity of atoll dwelling peoples wedged by a menacing sea.

Where are the Pacific Island women in these works?  One recent example of this genre, entitled Land is Life, shot in Kiribati and Tuvalu, depicts women’s and men’s responses to climate change in quite specific ways.  Local male politicians, bureaucrats and community leaders are encouraged to ruminate in a detached fashion – behind desks, in offices, in front of computers – on the risks posed to their populations.  Women’s authority is, rather, as first-hand witnesses, who testify how the invading sea has disrupted their cultivating, fishing or caring roles. Women shed many tears in these films as they reflect on the fate of their children.   Sometimes the mood is a little more upbeat when these stories are complimented with those demonstrating women’s adaptability; their efforts to develop new cultivation methods, new fishing practices, or their involvement in coastal regeneration projects such as mangrove nurseries.  Amongst the images that depict women at the heart of family and community life, viewers are also encouraged to reflect on their resilience and their capacity for adaptation to new environmental security challenges.

A similar focus on adaptation to climate change is strongly evident within the regional aid and development sector.  Assisted by donor nations such as Australia and New Zealand, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community has recently developed a toolkit which instructs on how gender mainstreaming should occur in climate change adaptation projects to ensure women are provided with the necessary decision-making opportunities, material resources and practical knowledge to assist their resilience to rising sea levels as well as environmental disasters. The argument here seems to be that women should not only be seen as victims of environmental change in the Pacific, but agents who can play key roles in assisting and developing community adaptation to environmental insecurity if given the chance.

Both in the popular media environment, and within the policy realm, the discourse of adaptation has become a prominent lens for understanding and assessing the security needs of Pacific women in an era of climate change.

But we might also ask, in a more provocative vein, what is left out of the picture when the focus is situated so consistently on the capacities of Pacific Islanders for adaptation.  Assisting the adaptation capacities of others may make countries neighbouring the region feel like they are, in fact, taking some responsibility on this issue. But it would also be productive for debate about women’s security in this region if Pacific Rim countries also considered how they too might more effectively adapt their own policy responses to this issue.

Women activists from across the region have developed a sophisticated and eloquent language that seeks to make the region’s powers understand how their own actions have increased the threats posed to their communities by climate change.  This work has been done by figures such as Ursula Rakova from the Carteret Islands in PNG.  As the leader of one of the first Pacific island communities to lose territory to seawater inundation, Rakova has overseen her community’s forced migration to Bougainville (a territory which is itself, in a long-term transition from conflict and which has made the security of this incoming population fragile).  Rakova describes climate change as ‘the central poverty issue of our time, where we see the world’s most vulnerable facing greater droughts, floods, hunger and disease, despite being the least responsible for causing climate change’.

Similar resistance is voiced by Noelene Nabulivou from Fiji, a long-time, active and renowned campaigner whose work demands greater accountability on gender and environmental security from Pacific Rim ‘big brother’ countries.  As major carbon emitting nations, eager to protect their economic security, Pacific Rim states have been accused of an ‘aggressive backtracking‘ on their ‘commitments to climate action and financing’. In these debates, Nabulivou has argued that gender security can only be achieved when Pacific Rim nations show a willingness to create ‘ambitious and legally binding climate change mitigation commitments’.

This is an awkward and contentious politics for the major powers in the Pacific Islands. They are undoubtedly more comfortable with images of Pacific women in Tuvalu, Marshall Islands or Kiribati who demonstrate a quiet and dignified adaptability to the environmental dangers that lie before them, than women who express anger and fear about their future insecurity and lay the blame for this at their door.

Within regional institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum, Australia and New Zealand are influential.  Yet, on the issue of legally binding commitments on carbon emissions, they hold a position that is widely divergent from the expectations and wishes of most other Pacific Island member states.  Indeed, according to anonymous sources, the New Zealand delegation at the recent 2013 Forum Regional Security Committee meeting questioned why climate change was even raised as a relevant issue of deliberation by civil society representatives in room.

It seems strangely ironic that such views continue in tandem with official security analysis material issued by the same states, which describes the impending social impacts of climate change as a serious strategic challenge for the Pacific Islands.  Strangely ironic too, that regional powers support the passive policy response of adaptation while ignoring the collective regional benefits that might accrue if they were to take a more activist stance internationally on the advantages of securing a legally binding treaty on carbon emissions.

As a feminist scholar working in our Pacific region, it also seems strangely contradictory to me, that our foreign minister is so keen to promote her government’s commitments to the Women, Peace and Security agenda on the world stage, but seems simultaneously immune to an issue which, according to her own government’s  Department of Defense advisors, will become a major source of regional instability, and as a result gendered insecurity, into the future.

As sea level rise continues, climate change adaptation, as it is currently practiced in the Pacific Islands, tinkers at the edge of the problem.  As such, it can only water down women’s security.  It is a response that emphasizes the importance of Pacific Islanders’ adaptation but ignores how Pacific Rim countries also contribute to this challenge. This is hardly the response Pacific Islanders should expect from countries such as Australia and New Zealand.  Our history of work in collectively resisting nuclear testing in the Pacific meant that we were once respectfully regarded as the region’s ‘big brothers’ to the region.  Today we are described as ‘rogue nations’.

Nicole George, University of Queensland