Climate activist Brianna Fruean. Photo / Michael Craig

Climate Activist Brianna Fruean's Vital Fight For The Pacific

Hear the Pacific Climate Warrior's call in the face of potentially devastating change

Brianna Fruean has a better reason than most of us to care about climate change: she doesn't want to lose her home. Growing up in Samoa taught her much about the precarious state of the planet's climate — and the implications for millions of people on islands dotted across the Pacific.

"My parents had a business close to the Vaisigano River, which flows through Apia, and almost every rainy season, the river would flood — no one had ever seen that before," she said. "We might think of climate change as weather patterns — like floods, cyclones, or droughts — but when you see it in front of your eyes, it's the kids who are having to move homes and stay at their Auntie's house.

"Or it's the families who are having to pull their kids out of school because they depended on fish to pay the school fees, and because the ocean is warming, they're not getting the same fish stocks they used to 10 years ago."

The 23-year-old Pacific Climate Warrior, now studying at the University of Auckland, said her island upbringing had "completely built" her passion for climate activism.

A founding member of the Samoan chapter of the climate organisation, she's lobbied for the Pacific around the world. "I really feel like the Pacific is the canary in the coal mine: even though we're among the first places experiencing the harsh consequences of the climate crisis, we're not going to be the last."

The gathering storm

Last December, one of the most ferocious tropical cyclones ever observed, and packing top wind speeds of 260km/h, tore through northern Fiji. Fiji's prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, called the category-5 Yasa "a climate emergency".

More than 23,000 Fijians were forced into evacuation centres and some 4,200 homes were destroyed or damaged - one of them collapsing upon and killing a man and a three-month-old baby.

Yasa, which ultimately wrought more than $340m in damage, indeed bore some of the traits that scientists expect to see more of in tropical cyclones. It was particularly strong for a system so early in the season, it intensified quickly but moved slowly, and blasted the islands with extremely high winds and rainfall.

While the total number of cyclones in the Pacific is predicted to decrease under climate change, their severity will worsen. That's because the tropical cyclones of the future will form in a climate warmer, wetter and more energetic than before  resulting in destructive systems that develop and intensify faster, and carry more water and extreme wind.

But for New Zealand's island neighbours, it's only part of the problem in a planet even 1.5C warmer than pre-industrial times — a threshold that could well be reached as early as the 2030s.

READ: Teen Climate Activist Sophie Handford Is A Driving Force For Change

While there's still a lack of precise, quantitative studies of projected impacts for sea-level rise at the 1.5C and 2C marks — and some recent research suggests many islands may be more naturally resilient than first thought  it's clear higher oceans will also bring threats like erosion, flooding and salinisation of water supplies.

On top of that, other effects like ocean warming, severe cyclones and mass coral bleaching risk knock-on impacts for everything from human health to agriculture and resources.

The UN's major 2018 climate report, found that in low-lying atolls, 40cm of sea-level rise — which could come with 1.5C of temperature rise — may endanger freshwater resources. By last year, global temperatures were already 1.2C above pre-industrial levels — while oceans have risen an estimated 20cm since 1850.

As this year's sweeping UN Sixth Assessment report brought more dismal predictions for the Pacific — with a 2C world spelling drying in some parts of the region, and heavier rainfall in others  Pacific leaders pleaded again for international help.

Hear Brianna Freuan's speech at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26)

Climate refugees

It wasn't too long ago that Fruean wouldn't discuss climate-driven migration. "I thought that, if we start speaking about migration, it's like we're giving up."

More recently, though, as the planet continues to heat, she says island states have begun to talk more about such inevitabilities, as well as adaptation and mitigation. "We should at least have some conversation, so we're prepared if worse comes to worst."

In a brief last year, Otago University researchers noted that, in 2019 alone, nearly 24 million people from some 140 nations were displaced due to climatic disasters — and that the Pacific was among the most affected areas.

According to assessments by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, at least 50,000 Pasifika people were at risk of losing their homes each year due to climate-related pressure. Especially vulnerable were low-lying, small island nations like Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

A 2018 Cabinet paper noted that as many as 180,000 people living in Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, alongside residents of Tokelau and atolls of some larger island states, would be "significantly affected" by the crisis.

And within the last decade alone, it's been estimated that one in 10 people in Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu had already been displaced.

On a broader scale, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands — collectively representing 85 per cent of the total Pacific population — were already struggling with displacement. While some people were being forced to shift to other countries, most movement still occurred within countries' borders - even when resettlement areas were similarly exposed.

"Generally, people don't want to leave their home, where they grew up over generations," said Dr Dennis Wesselbaum, an Otago University macroeconomist who studies climate migration.

In time, however, he expected domestic displacement would ultimately be followed by more cross-border migration. "Then, rich and developed nations like New Zealand and Australia seem to be obvious candidates for migrants." He added that the direct impacts of global warming, like weather extremes, wouldn't be the only drivers.

READ: Why The Pacific Climate Warriors Are Fighting For Climate Action In The Pacific

Climate change could spell income loss, especially in agriculture sectors; health risks from threats like vector-borne diseases; weakened or failed states; and regional conflict over food, energy or water security.

"I think that the impacts of climate on daily life and wellbeing become larger over time," Wesselbaum said. "The direct and indirect channels seem to be adding up and the total impact becomes stronger."

A recent New Zealand Defence Force report predicted that climate-driven security impacts would be a "critical component" of operation planning over years to come, alongside our traditional humanitarian role in the Pacific.

Amid these spiralling dangers, New Zealand has been singled out in successive global studies as something of a lifeboat or safe haven — one recent paper in the journal Sustainability noting our location, political stability, agriculture and renewable energy.

Victoria University climate scientist Professor James Renwick recalled Cold War times when that distinction was often made in the context of nuclear war.

"And I think that's the same idea now. I personally don't think any country is going to be particularly well off under climate change, but there's a view that we're nominally clean, green and temperate, and will continue to be like that for a while."

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