The Pacific Region’s top climate concerns

Coral loss, water supplies, increased temperatures top Hawai‘i and Pacific Region Concerns in 3rd U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Will Caron

From the East-West Center News:

HONOLULU (May 6th, 2014) ­– Among major climate change concerns and challenges already being felt in Hawai‘i and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands are damage to coral reefs, decreasing freshwater supplies, increasing temperatures and greater stresses on native marine and terrestrial ecosystems, according to the 3rd U.S. National Climate Assessment released by the White House today.

Several authors of the Hawai‘i and Pacific Islands section of the national report discussed the regional concerns in a special briefing this morning at the East-West Center in Honolulu. (Watch video of the briefing.)

“Climate change is here, climate change is happening, and we have to do something about it,” William Aila Jr., Chair of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, repeatedly emphasized during his opening remarks at the briefing.

“Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands have much to contribute to the national discussion on climate change, both from a scientific research perspective and from a proactive adaptive stance, and it is our hope today to add substance to the discussion of practical adaptations and solutions for the problems we will face,” said Dr. Victoria Keener of the East-West Center’s Pacific RISA program, which organized today’s briefing and helped lead an earlier regional assessment that was incorporated into the national report.

A panel of assessment authors told the briefing audience that the primary concerns for the region include:

– Already constrained freshwater supplies becoming more limited on many islands, coupled with saltwater intrusion and sea level rise to impact coastal aquifers even further.

– Mounting threats to lives, livelihoods and cultures via stresses on food and water security, infrastructure, health, and safety, which are expected to lead to increasing human migration, making it increasingly difficult for Pacific Islanders to sustain the region’s many unique customs, beliefs and languages.

– The impact of warmer oceans, leading to increased coral bleaching events and reef disease outbreaks, as well as changed distribution patterns of tuna fisheries.

– Increasing temperatures, and in some areas reduced rainfall, which among other impacts will increase the risk of extinctions among native Pacific Island plants and animals, especially in high-elevation ecosystems with increasing exposure to invasive species.

However, Deanna Spooner, coordinator of the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative, emphasized that, while climate change has “existential” implications for many Pacific Island communities, “there are things that we can to do together … as a scientific community, as a management community and as a series of islands that are connected by the Pacific Ocean, in order to create more climate-resilient communities.”

As examples, Spooner cited work on forest, stream and wetland restoration; community-based marine resource management; and people’s individual efforts to conserve energy and reduce waste.

“Hawai‘i has a lot of these programs already in place, and we’re in the process as a large community of stitching them together,” she said. “In American Samoa they have a territorial adaptation strategy in place that is beginning to be implemented village-by-village. There are federal emergency plans in various parts of the Pacific that look at climate and disaster preparedness. So there are a lot of activities we can do to help create more resilient communities and ecosystems.”