Listening to the first responders of climate change: The social dimensions of climate change in the Pacific

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 Coastal communities across Solomon Islands have been adapting to the realities of climate change where sea level rise, erosion, and saline intrusion make the risk of displacement a serious threat.  © Hamish Wyatt/World Bank Coastal communities across Solomon Islands have been adapting to the realities of climate change where sea level rise, erosion, and saline intrusion make the risk of displacement a serious threat. © Hamish Wyatt/World Bank

Climate change is an existential threat for Pacific Island countries that can lead to the risk of displacement and migration for families and communities across the region.  This ‘forced’ migration means the loss of ancestral homelands, unique and lasting ties to land, and vital cultural identities.

The World Bank is supporting efforts to better understand locally led adaptation and social resilience. Through new research, The Social Dimensions of Climate Change: Pacific Series, our team has been listening and documenting how Pacific people and communities have been adapting to climate change and how assistance can be improved to better meet their needs.

It’s estimated that half of the population of the Pacific lives within 10 km of the coast where sea level rise, coastal erosion, and saline intrusion make the risk of displacement, loss of homes and loss of traditional lands more stark. The World Bank estimates that without efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change, 49 million people in East Asia and the Pacific will be forced to flee their homes due to climate impacts by 2050.

Little is formally documented about how communities in the Pacific are, on a day-to-day basis, experiencing and responding to climate related risks and hazards. Some traditional methods for protecting coastlines seem to be reaching their limits, and international adaptation interventions often only last as long as funding for the projects continue. Moreover, local communities see their coping strategies as addressing more immediate concerns – like needs in education, employment, or better livelihoods – rather than a bigger picture challenge like climate change. As such, questions remain about how community action is best achieved, and what practices and approaches are best avoided. Understanding these issues is important for addressing relative power at the community-level, including the voices of vulnerable groups.

The Pacific people are not passive bystanders in the face of climate change.  They are instead the first responders to climate risks and, for years, and have influenced decisions on how climate impacts are managed locally. Communities across Melanesia have histories of dealing with the effects of sea-level rise.

Temporary and permanent migration has been one of the most widely documented local responses to this situation, both as a direct means of escaping natural hazards and as a way to ensure communities can grow, trade, and thrive. In Solomon Islands, past colonial authorities planned community relocations – both internally and for external arrivals.  

Now, climate related migration and resettlement in many Pacific countries is on a smaller scale and has occurred largely outside government planning.  Nevertheless, internal migration can be challenging, and can contribute to conflict and land disputes.

Our work suggests that development agencies and national governments need to better understand the obstacles affected people face, including social issues that may impact how local communities can adapt to our changing climate. For transformative, sustainable change, it is important that external adaptation assistance matches community expectations and is delivered in culturally and contextually appropriate ways. Improving dialogue and understanding is critical to ensuring assistance does not precipitate or exacerbate community divisions, and that planned interventions continue to adapt, respond, and build upon the experiences and priorities of Pacific Islanders. 

The Social Dimensions of Climate Change: Pacific Series is aimed at understanding how different communities perceive and experience climate change on a day-to-day basis, how they respond to risks, and their future plans and aspirations. The Series documents how climate risks manifest at the community-level, including variations across intersecting forms of social difference such as gender, age, marital status, ethnicity, or disability.

Read more on the study reports and share your own perspectives in the comments below.


Rebekah Ramsay

Social Development Specialist at the World Bank

John Cox

Social Anthropologist and Development Studies specialist

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