Pacific island can adapt to climate change if locals take lead

Vanuatu village where community based adaptations were implemented, Photo: Ross Westoby

A collaboration between Queensland-based universities and Pacific Island communities has found climate change adaptation programs are only sustained if they develop local ownership.

Published in Nature Climate Change, researchers from the University of Queensland, Griffith University and the University of the Sunshine Coast, worked with national and international development organisations on the ground to assess the success of community-based climate change adaptations in four Pacific Island countries.

Despite contributing only 0.03% of global carbon emissions, the Pacific Islands are at the frontline of climate change impacts. These island nations are facing more frequent cyclones, floods, droughts and fires as a consequence of climate change.

Effective adaptation programs are critical if Pacific Islanders are to remain in their homelands and continue to live rich and fulfilling lives.

International climate aid commitments, however, are likely to dry up in the Pacific as western governments use the money for their own countries’ escalating adaptation costs.

With limited funding, understanding what successful adaptation looks like in Pacific island states is urgent to ensure best practice and that money is being well spent.

Dr Ross Westoby, a research fellow from the Griffith Institute for Tourism

“We documented what factors lead to success and failure and what best practice might really look like,” said Associate Professor Karen McNamara from the University of Queensland.

“We asked locals about the effectiveness, equity, impact and sustainability of recent and past adaptation initiatives, and used this feedback to determine their success.”

Dr Ross Westoby, a research fellow from the Griffith Institute for Tourism evaluated programs in Vanuatu and found the ‘success’ of community based adaptations were mixed; a finding mirrored by his colleges on the other Pacific Islands.

“But when adaptation programs were locally funded and implemented and when they were integrated with ecosystem-based adaptation approaches, the outcomes were much better from community perspectives,” Dr Westoby said.

“Similarly, those initiatives that weren’t forward thinking and ‘owned’ by the community, often struggled.”

The findings point to the need for communities to drive their own agendas based on local knowledge, experiences and coping mechanisms.

“For an adaptation initiative to be successful, our research found it must have local approval and ownership, shared benefit for the community, be integrate into the local context, and must have big picture thinking,” Associate Professor McNamara said.

“Initiatives that focused on both the community and the ecosystem were self-sustaining, allowing the community to maintain the project even after development agencies had left and the funding stopped,” Dr Westoby said.

In Vanuatu, for example, the locals deemed two initiatives on raising climate change awareness as successful as they conveyed new scientific knowledge by complement it with traditional knowledge.

“Practitioners and researchers need to rethink community-based adaptation as being “based” in communities, where ideas are imposed, but rather as something the community leads, that build on their strengths and traditional values,” Dr Westoby said.

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