Fighting climate change the Micronesian Way

Patrick D. Nunn

Professor of Geography

University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia)

23rd March 2018

Patrick photo one for articlePeople have been living on islands in Micronesia for as much as 3500 years.  We know that the first people arrived at Ritidian on Guam from the Philippines this long ago, and that their descendants have been in these islands ever since.  But to listen to some discussions about future climate change and how vulnerable some islands in this region apparently are, you might justifiably wonder how people have survived for more than three millenia in this part of the world.

This summarises the point that sometimes ‘western’ science is not as well-informed as you might expect.  In the last few decades, science has correctly identified a challenge for livelihoods everywhere in the world from climate change.  Temperatures are rising, sea level is rising, the intensity and frequency of typhoons and droughts are changing, all of which pose complex challenges to the way people live, whether they be in Micronesia or Mexico, Pohnpei or Pakistan.  Scientists use global models of the Earth’s climate to understand what is happening, how the complex climate system responds to particular ‘forcings’ and, in doing so, arrive at particular ‘projections’ of what may happen in particular places at certain times in the future.


For island countries, rising sea level is naturally a key concern.  In Micronesia, where sea level is currently rising at 2-3 times the global average, scientists are thinking about how 21st-century sea-level rise might reconfigure coastal geographies, especially in low-lying coastal areas.  Science has taken on the additional burden of advising countries like FSM and its neighbors how they should best prepare for and respond to such climate-driven changes.  Global solutions suggest we might either ‘protect’ our shorelines, perhaps by building hard structures like seawalls; or we might ‘accommodate’ the effects of sea-level rise by rethinking the ways in which we use the coast; or we might ‘retreat’ from the shoreline, moving our activities and infrastructure to more secure locations. 

These three options are often touted as new ways in which communities in countries like FSM should think about responding to sea-level rise, both now and in the future.  Commonly such suggestions overlook the fact that people have lived in Micronesia for more than three millenia, during which time they have overcome climate changes, including swings of sea level up and down.  How did this happen?

Read more: Fighting climate change the Micronesian Way

Grave and avoidable injustice: Islands to perish from Climate Change Impacts says FSM Vice President at COP23 meetings in Bonn

That island nations are at the forefront of impacts of climate change and therefore are the proverbial “canary in the coalmine” was the message of the Government of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) at the negotiations in the Global Conference on Climate Change (COP23), held in Bonn from November 6-17, 2017.
As islands are already facing devastating impacts and continually seeking ways to adapt to climate change, leaders like the FSM Vice President, the Honorable Yosiwo P. George, continue to call on leaders of the developed countries to take responsibility and leadership in their own countries to curb their destructive emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases.
The Honorable Vice President George spoke on behalf of the Government and his delegation to the Climate Change Conference consisting of members of the executive branch, legislative branch, and non-governmental organizations and partners at the international and national level. In his call for leadership, he outlined the following specific actions to facilitate global action:
1. Strengthen your resolve to keep global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
2. Redouble your efforts to use every means possible to support climate protection
3. Make a sincere promise to protect the countries and communities that are most vulnerable
4. Support and encourage parties for an effective Talanoa facilitative dialogue
5. Support the Adaptation Fund to serve the Paris Agreement
6. Support the Loss and Damage to become a permanent agenda of the subsidiary bodies.

“There is some progress at the global level to gain commitment from developed countries to curb emissions and the FSM assists to take lead in negotiating some of these arrangements like the Kigali amendment which will lead to a reduction of 0.5 degree in global temperature by the end of the century” said the Honorable Vice President George. The FSM Government remains diligent in its efforts to push for island issues with Fiji as the COP President, along with other island nations within their island nation coalition called the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).
As the talks wrapped up at COP23, the FSM President, His Excellency Peter M. Christian, took forward the global efforts on the Kigali Amendment within the global framework under the talks on Ozone Depleting Substances, held in Montreal Canada the week after.
Furthermore, the FSM and AOSIS continue to commit to their role of keeping the issues of climate change at the forefront and holding countries to their commitments under the Paris Agreement. “Any slip by developing country parties from delivering on their commitments could result in devastating impacts to our islands and we must not let that happen,” said Secretary Andrew Yatilman of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Emergency Management. The FSM takes what it can from the global talks but Vice President George emphasized FSM’s view of the gravity of the situation for islands, “To allow even one canary to perish – to sink below the rising seas or to be swept away by a violent storm – is a grave and avoidable injustice.”

Dylan Tellei on the Coral and Ice Exchange

Leaving home, alone, for the first time was definitely the first of the many new things I experienced that caught me off guard and had a lasting impact throughout the trip. That sense of being alone wasn’t necessarily bad though, it gave me a sense of freedom, a sense of individualism going into the trip. Soon after, however, I found that I wasn’t entirely alone. I found myself in the company of Chloe, a Micronesian from Chuuk, together we traveled to Canada, I had found someone similar to me and had begun to feel more comfortable going into the expedition. For the next few days we roamed the city of Ottawa, getting a chance to try local food, or “country” food as they call it. We walked around the city market watching street-performers and musicians, visited museums of history and nature and a gallery of Canadian and Inuit art, and cycled around the city to the waterfalls at the end of the canal.
Once our tour of Ottawa had concluded we embarked on our expedition starting with a flight to Resolute Bay, one of the northernmost communities in Canada. Before I go into this next section please keep in mind that Palauans were NOT meant for cold climate at all. I’ll be honest once the doors of the plane opened and the slightest touch of the Arctic winds touched me I was ready to go back to Palau. Being from a place that is normally 30-40°C to 0° was a total shock! That intense cold was so foreign to me. As I got off the plane I saw my breath for the first time in that 0° cold and kept breathing just to see it over and over again until I couldn’t see it anymore. Finally when it was time to board the zodiacs, which are small rubber boats that use inflated pockets to stay afloat, I saw it for the first time, ice. This was the first time I had ever seen ice just floating in a body of water, excluding the ice I get in my iced tea or water, this was a joke I had told countless times throughout the expedition.
Throughout my time aboard the Ocean Endeavor I was able to experience so much. Each day we were given a presentation about something new and exciting, along with that we participated in workshops that tested both our hands on skills and overall knowledge. Each workshop was designed to accommodate everyone’s personal style of learning from artful crafting workshops to scientific data analysis workshops. Off of the Ocean Endeavor we were given the opportunity to go on hikes to arctic glaciers and rock formations and mountains, go standup paddle boarding and kayaking around various fjords, and even do some fishing and foraging around certain areas.
All in all the expedition was great educationally but what really had a lasting impact on me was the hospitality and warmth of the staff, students, and people I met along the journey. Throughout the entire expedition I was met with nothing but open arms and warm smiles. Each and everyday everyone would meet and be glad and we would all enjoy the day conversing and joking, each of us enjoying each other’s company. The atmosphere surrounding our group reminded me of my home and my family, and soon enough that’s what we became, a small little family nearly 200 strong all connected by the experiences and stories we all shared. My hope is that ALL future expeditions will develop a bond similar to ours and that each and every student and staff may stay connected as alumni and family.

Karen Ehmes on the Coral and Ice Exchange

arcticSEP 30, 2017

Imagine three teenage students from the tropical islands of Micronesia walking on the ice of the Arctic. I’m telling you, as a student who went through the experience, it was indeed the best, most powerful, and the most life-changing experience of my life. But, I’ll start off by saying this: the experience is very hard to explain. To understand it best is to experience it oneself.
Students On Ice is a program that accepts students from countries all over the world to take them on an expedition through the Canadian Arctic and off to Greenland. The program teaches students about climate change, Inuit culture and history, and many other scientific studies, arts, and humanities that any teenager may want to learn about.
As a Micronesian in the program, I noticed some similarities between the Inuit people and the Micronesian people. These similarities include the history of the people, some parts of the cultures, and facing the effects of climate change. I learned about the Inuit culture and history. The Inuits were once living their own lives before they were introduced to the Europeans. They lived in nice, warm igloos, they hunted and gathered food, and they even respected each and every other person in the tribe. Similar to the Inuits, past Micronesians lived in nice, breezy huts, farmed and fished for their food, and respected every single person on their island. These two groups of people share similar lifestyles. They’re only slightly different because of their environment and the climate they’re used to. Inuits were also removed from their original lands and were also introduced to modern government and businesses. Similar to Micronesians, specifically and the Marshallese, were removed completely from some of their islands to satisfy the U.S. needs.
Inuits also depended on the food around them and they’ve made it their cultural food. Their type of food includes seal, walrus, narwhal, caribou, and many other animals. Before eating these animals, they skin them and use their skin to make clothing. On the other hand, Micronesians have breadfruit, banana, taro, yam, and many other recipes that are made for cultural activities. They also use plant fibers of their surroundings to make traditional clothing. These two groups of people may live in extremely different climates and yet have very similar lifestyles.
I also learned about climate change. I learned about how the ice melts to affect sea level rise. I learned about how the earth is heated to cause the melting of the ice, and how the melting of ice in turn makes the earth heat up even more. I saw with my own eyes the melting ice that causes our home islands to erode away. Being in a small boat in front of a glacier and witnessing icebergs calve from it and fall into the ocean was both really amazing and also heartbreaking. I was glad I got to see it with my own eyes and also very heartbroken when the thought of my own home came to my mind. The ice falling into water in front of me is what increases the sea level back home. Likewise, my Inuit friends were devastated to watch the ice in their home melt. The melting of their home is the sinking of my home. Climate change is very real and has to be dealt with.
I learned so much on this trip and I recommend every student in Micronesia to apply and learn from this—the more, the better. Lastly, I would like to thank the help of my parents, friends, Xavier High family, and most especially Island Research & Education Initiative (iREi) from Pohnpei for funding my expedition. All thanks to you, I learned so much and I’m willing to make this world healthy and alive.

Chloe Arnold on Coral and Ice Exchange

When I was introduced to the Coral & Ice Exchange program developed by Island Research & Education Initiative (iREi) and Students On Ice (SOI), I was drawn in by its goal which was to educate youth about climate change. As an islander, I first learned about climate change through my school, where it taught me that climate change would impact the people living on small islands like mine. So when the opportunity presented itself -- a trip to the north to learn about climate change -- I had to take it. And believe me, the Arctic expedition was an eye opener.
Before the expedition, I thought the impacts of climate change were only affecting my islands. I only knew climate change in the perspective of an islander. When I went on my expedition to the north, I began to see climate change from different perspectives. I learned that this is a shared issue. In the North, people suffer tragic loss every year because of global warming. The melting ice in the North is causing huge environmental, cultural, and social changes. Sea level rise threatens low lying islands in the Pacific. All over the world, natural disasters occur. I thought I could not do anything to help and that I could only sit by and watch these problems happen. The expedition told me otherwise. The trip taught me that no matter how young I was, I could still join hands to help prevent climate change. The Arctic expedition offered much more.
The expedition offered a chance to see what an island girl like me could only see in pictures. On every daily excursion on land, I was amazed by the beautiful landscape, the ice caps, glaciers, sea ice and the living organisms. The islands I visited were filled with so much history about the Inuit and past whalers and explorers. I got to learn about the history of the Inuit on one of their historical sites. I could only imagine what they had gone through during the winter and how much hardship they had to endure. The trip to the north introduced me to the fascinating Inuit culture. A culture that was so similar to mine. Who knew places so distant could share so much in common? For me, learning about their culture was one of the best highlights of the trip.
The Arctic expedition was indeed an experience of a lifetime. For a while, I could not believe that I was actually in the north. Because of this expedition, I now know what I want to become in life. This was so much more than a trip to the North Pole. I was taught to get out of my comfort zone and experience new extraordinary things. I learned and experience so much in less than three weeks. I met so many wonderful people from all across the globe. We created friendships that are sure to last and help us in the future. By the end of the trip, we all had one ambition which was to protect the planet.