A changing environment will change our world

The impact of climate change is being felt all over the world.

In the Pacific island region, increases in hurricane intensity is a clear indication of that change. Essentially more powerful hurricanes are occurring more frequently. Increases in severe hurricane events are not only a signal of such change, but represent a significant threat to small communities.

An increase in the severity of major events may mean some communities will not fully recover before the next significant climate related event occurs. Successive occurrences have the potential to significantly alter life in affected communities. This impact on traditional life and local culture must be of equal concern to the concern that exists for environmental damage.

For many communities, the increase in these events, from hurricanes to floods, which lead to soil erosion, crop decay, fresh water shortages, and the undermining of the local economy are not fully internalized as the challenge they represent to life and culture as it presently exists. If traditional ways of life are to survive and remain sustainable, strategies for making communities more resilient to climate change must be adapted and implemented.

There is much to learn from Pacific Island communities, both in the emphasis given to educating residents regarding climate change as well as by their efforts to implement strategies that strengthen community resilience.

A study by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation looked at governmental strategies employed by Pacific Island governments, which holistically address climate change. Those strategies include education as well as initiatives designed to protect crucial industries, including tourism, energy and conservation. With the support of the United Nations and others, these practical strategies are implemented at the community level to address climate change. All require and achieve community engagement.

A good example of this holistic approach can be found on the island of Abaiang in Kiribati. Government identified a lack of awareness of climate change as constituting a significant threat as it compromised efforts to implement climate resilience strategies. The government and local authorities changed the school curriculum.  Now all primary and secondary school teaching addresses climate change.

In Fiji, sea-level villages are moving to higher ground to avoid the rising water and coastal impact of environmental changes. This is a difficult proposition for any community, but for those situated in areas particularly at risk of continued devastation or permanent flooding, the choice is clear– move to a safer location and preserve culture and lifestyle, or see everything lost.

Relocating an entire communities is a rare occurrence, but relocating critically important infrastructure, such as hospitals and other emergency facilities is more doable and contributes to community survival. Functioning emergency and infrastructure facilities can help speed recovery in the aftermath of a disaster.  The time to reposition emergency infrastructure away from the threat of rising tides and storm surges is before disaster strikes, not after.

Transportation networks must also be of significant concern. Communities may become isolated and inaccessible in a natural disaster. Ensuring airports and heliports are well protected from environmental impact needs careful evaluation. It may be necessary to relocate or develop alternative routes to ensure the ability to evacuate and/or deliver supplies and assistance.

While national government involvement is essential to address cross-regional features such as infrastructure, local communities are able to independently undertake meaningful and constructive measures.

In Vanuatu, farmers have adapted by breeding animals suited to the warmer temperatures they are experiencing and planting crops that are more suited to surviving those conditions. This is an approach that can be transferred to any small community. By adopting new crops and livestock, a small change that is relatively undisruptive, communities can ensure they are better equipped to deal with the consequences of environment change.

A recent study by Michelle Mycoo and Micael G Donovan, A Blue Urban Agenda, discusses strengthening buildings to resist higher wind speeds, capturing and storing rain and groundwater for use when there is damage to the water supply system, and constructing local solar power supply installations capable of powering emergency response equipment. This allows communities to maintain critical infrastructure and operations in the event regional services are disrupted. These and other initiatives make possible a unified local response to emergency situations in communities otherwise isolated in the aftermath of a disaster.  Much can be done even within the constraints of limited resources.

The appropriate responses to climate change can only be implemented once communities fully understand the risk they face.  The appropriate responses will vary by community depending on specific situations. Guidance from government and community stakeholders can help define what needs to be done. Lessons can be learned from others.

What is clear is that with a collaborative approach to planning and community involvement, the challenges posed by climate change can be mitigated. Communities and cultures that enact appropriate strategies can be made sustainable in the face of climate change.

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