Photos: Climate change – an interview with Donovan Burton

“What do you do when you tell the majority of 12-year-olds in an island that in 20 or 30 or 40 years’ time they may have to relocate and their island is not going to be there anymore?” Donovan Burton of Climate Planning


A profound and complex question raised by Donovan, who led UNICEF’s research into climate change impacts on children in Kiribati and Vanuatu. Donovan is one of Australia’s most experienced climate change planners and he worked closely with researchers from the Griffith University’s Centre for Coastal Management and Urban Research Programme and CLIMsystems  on the study, which is part of five UNICEF country studies on climate change and children in East Asia and the Pacific.

One of the things that really jumped out at me in reading the Pacific study was that how climate change affects children is largely being left out of discussions around how countries will adapt to the impact of climate change. Yet children will be among those most affected by it. The leading killers of children worldwide are highly sensitive to climate change. Higher temperatures have been linked to increased rates of malnutrition, cholera, diarrhoeal disease and vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria, while children’s underdeveloped immune systems put them at far greater risk of contracting these diseases. When crops fail or livelihoods are lost, children get taken out of school. So why aren’t the majority of adaptation strategies taking children into consideration?

Children have unique perspectives on their environment and they have proven time and again that they are a vital resource for improving a community’s ability to address climate change risks. Evidence has shown that when children are informed and involved, they educate others in their communities and are better able to prepare and protect themselves. But not only are they not being called upon to contribute to national discussions, but the needs and vulnerabilities of children are rarely taken into consideration in policy-making and decision-making processes.

So Donovan’s question is a good one. What do you do when you have to tell 12 year olds that, within their life time, their island home may cease to exist? It is critical that these discussions take place now so that governments plan effectively and with children in mind, and so children are not only informed and prepared for what may happen, but are empowered through the adaptation process.

Karen Emmons spoke with Donovan Burton about these and other issues and the findings of their research.

Karen Emmons: You have been active in the climate field for quite a while now and have worked on dozens of climate change adaptation projects. What have you learned from your research with UNICEF in the Pacific that adds to the body of climate change knowledge on these two heavily analysed countries?

Donovan Burton: What we’ve learned from these two countries can be extrapolated for the broader Pacific Island countries. One of the things that this study has done that others haven’t is look at the impacts that climate change and climate change adaptation policies can have on children. One of the things that I’m particularly concerned about is the phenomenal amount of money available in the international donor area for climate change adaptation. This money is increasing. But what will happen soon is that we get a very rapid emergence of adaptation plans and even though they may have evolved with the best intentions, they can have negative impacts.

An example is sea walls, which donors like because they can be rolled out and you can physically see them. But if you don’t do it properly, you can make cultural disconnections.  We saw that happen in Kiribati where people can no longer access traditional fishing areas because a sea wall has been built. The majority of sea walls that were built in Kiribati were not done with an environmental impact assessment. One of the problems with climate change adaptation is that we have to respond quite quickly but not at the detriment of other impacts.

Another issue is a growing awareness of the psychological impacts that we need to address or at least evaluate. What do you do when you tell the majority of 12-year-olds in an island that in 20 or 30 or 40 years’ time they may have to relocate and their island is not going to be there anymore? We need to tell children and arm them with some responses and some positive ways out as well.

I loved doing the workshop with children; it was amazing and what I noticed was that the children who attend school were much more aware of climate change as an issue than those who don’t go to school. But I also saw that many were quite lost. I haven’t seen any baseline psychological evaluations that consider how that type of information could impact children. That was quite confronting for me.

KE: What do you mean you saw children ‘lost’?

DB: We got children to draw posters for us, and some would say things like ‘I am hungry’ or ‘I don’t want to lose my country’. None of the children, on any of their posters, mentioned relocation as an adaptation option. For somewhere like Kiribati, it’s a serious option that’s going to have to happen because the challenge is quite dire. So how do we tell children, “We know you don’t want to go but you might have to”? If I was 12 years old, it would be hard to deal with.

KE: Going back to building sea walls, isn’t the nature of adaptation that you are going to have to change things you traditionally did?

DB: Absolutely, but I think you need to have alternative solutions in place. You need to recognize it rather than build it and say it’s going to cause a negative impact. You need to make sure the community is aware of it as well, especially if you want to have buy-in from the community.  The community needs to know they haven’t been ripped off in the process.

There are lots of challenging issues at the moment and there’s no one solution. Every action is going to have a negative reaction but we have to weigh up the costs and benefits. We also have to inform people and let them make the adaptation decisions. At the moment, it seems more external.

KE: Presumably there are a lot of adults making decisions; where are children coming into the discussion?

DB: To be honest, they’re not. There is a token inclusion of children. We reviewed 14 climate change adaptation plans and policies and only two mentioned children – Solomon Islands and Kiribati. I think Kiribati is emerging onto a better path of inclusiveness and incorporating the rights of children in its adaptation planning, but that only started a few months ago. It’s too early to know to what extent that children’s voices will be heard. In Vanuatu there may have been some consideration of children but there’s no documented consideration of children in the process.

KE: What child-specific impacts need to be considered?

DB: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change created the NAPA, which is a national adaptation programme of action guide to help least developing countries that don’t have the capacity to follow a framework in how they should adapt to climate change. They tend to follow it almost to the letter. Within that guiding component, there is no specific reference to children. If there was just one point included that said to consider the rights of children, that would have profound impacts on the national adaptation plans for each country.

We also need to think how we best educate children. One of our study’s recommendations is to have a summary for children in all policy documents so they can understand what the policy means. We need to give them the tools to understand what we’re talking about.

Baseline data is paramount and it’s a real struggle at the moment. People want instant answers, but it’s really difficult. We need to find ways to make extrapolations but at the same time gather baseline data so that in a few years we can start making better connections. Also, there’s going to be a push for monitoring and evaluation, and how do we evaluate the effectiveness of adaptation plans? It was difficult for us to obtain good baseline data, both climate data and data for, say, child abuse or domestic violence or even malnutrition.

KE: What impacts need to be considered when considering children?

DB: Food security is really important. Water availability is crucial. These are already a focus of the basic Millennium Development Goals. But the psychological impacts – that’s going to come faster than anything. Adapting to the current weather is not being done sufficiently, adapting to more extremes is going to be really challenging. For a place like Kiribati, international relocation is looking more and more like an option. If that’s going to occur, we need to consider how they can maintain their cultural connections while not being physically in their country. What I’m worried about is an international relocation that will be disparate – Australia might take some, Hong Kong might take some. How is that process going to evolve?

Additionally, by 2050 Kiribati and Vanuatu are not going to be the only countries experiencing significant challenges. Currently, there are 300,000 people living in these two countries. By 2050 there are going to be tens of millions of people exposed to harsher climate in places like Bangladesh, the Nile River Delta and parts of South-East Asia.

KE: What did you find on such impacts as undernutrition?

DB: That’s a significant issue. What’s going to happen in the future, there’s going to be a confluence of multiple stresses. We’re going to have climate change in an age of increasing oil vulnerability. People in the Pacific are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. We’re going to have climate change in a period of urbanization. If you look at Betio in South Tarawa, it’s one of the most densely populated single-level dwelling areas in the world – there are 6,500 people per square kilometre. That population is expected to double within the next decade or so. The prevalence of disease is much more likely to occur because of close proximity. Kiribati doesn’t have an issue with malaria but Vanuatu does, and there’s academic literature that shows a direct correlation between an increase in temperatures and an increase in malaria. And even though Kiribati isn’t exposed to malaria now, it may be later on. We just don’t know how the environment is going to respond.

KE: In your report you talked of a relationship between temperature and domestic violence…

DB: Although domestic violence is a complex issue, I believe that part of its occurrence is linked to stress, and I think we’re going to see an increase in stress due to climate change impacts. Will it lead to increases in domestic violence? We’re certainly going to see an increase in stress among people trying to feed their families or trying to find safer places to live. In Kiribati, domestic violence is phenomenal.  You see it everywhere. There is evidence of increased violence post extreme events in the Pacific and this is likely to increase in a climate changed world.

KE: What else concerns you from your research?

DB: Another thing we have to be careful about is doing what looks good. UNICEF asked us to find out what children are doing for adaptation and one of those things is planting mangroves. Everyone is planting mangroves. But if you actually go and look at the sites, those mangroves aren’t going to last. They don’t grow fast enough. The sea level rise will come, the ocean acidification will come, the increase in ocean temperature. It looks great in a photo and show’s you’re doing something, but does it?

I think some of these developing countries are doing better than what we’re doing in the industrialized world. Look at the national adaptation planning in the developed world – it isn’t anywhere near as participatory as what some of these countries are doing. Both Vanuatu and Kiribati are mainstreaming climate change adaptation into everything they do. In Australia we have a Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency but we’re not weaving it into everything we do. There’s probably a misconception that the industrialized world is ahead of the game. One of the benefits of cultures like Kiribati and Vanuatu and many others is they still have family connections and strong resilience just from their networks and their village lifestyle. Here we don’t. We outsource our old folks to institutions and we don’t listen to them anymore and we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re adapting better than the developing communities.

KE: A large part of your research is based on modelling you created; can you explain what ‘modelling’ means?

DB: Modelling is a way of projecting what is likely to occur based on a combination of what has transpired historically over a certain period of time and mathematical models. The modelling for this study was done by CLIMsystems, which is known for its computer projecting capabilities. Modelling can be quite confusing and there are a lot of scenarios for climate change, so we limited it to gathering the average from an ensemble of 21 climate models and focused predominantly on the worst-case scenario, which is the International Programme on Climate Change A1FI scenario (rapid global population growth, high economic growth based on fossil fuels and good uptake of new technologies). We did the modelling out to 2050 to look at what changes in average temperature and average rainfall.

We also did some extreme-event – temperature and rainfall – analysis for two specific locations, South Tarawa in Kiribati and a place called Lamap in Vanuatu, which was based on data availability. They showed interesting results. On average, the warming for both places was marginally less than the global average, based on the 1961–1990 range. The average for rainfall revealed alarming figures, with the return rate, or the frequency of an extreme event, narrowing considerably. For South Tarawa, a three-day extreme event of 4,390 mm of rainfall, which is quite a lot, would in 2050 occur once in every 40 years instead of the current once in every 300 years.

KE: So what does that mean?

DB: Those places we looked at are going to have more of the extremes and the extremes they have will be more extreme. So for a place like Kiribati, it’s going to be greater periods of hot and dry or wet. For everyday life that poses lots of challenges in terms of water security for Kiribati, because they rely on consistent rainfall to recharge their sea lenses and to capture rainwater into their rainwater tanks. Last week, Tuvalu and Tokelau both declared national emergencies because they had only one week of potable fresh water left. When you’ve got small islands with very small capacity to store water, you’re going to have to start relying on other mechanisms and that might mean desalination, which is expensive and energy-intensive. It’s hard to imagine what it’s going to be like for a place like Vanuatu, which already experiences lots of extremes. Vanuatu is now considered the most at-risk country for natural disasters because of its exposure to tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanisms, cyclones and storms. If our predictions are right, it means they’re going to have more of them.

KE: When you said global warming came out marginally lower, is that good news?

DB: That’s an interesting question because ultimately we aren’t too sure what the thresholds are for some of our natural systems. Right now the world is asked to contain global warming to 2 degrees, but that still means considerable impacts. We’re not sure what will happen to the oceans around each of the islands when they heat up further, what it will mean for the natural environment, what it means for the fish species and the fish stocks. We just don’t know enough yet. There’s a lot of money going into the research but it takes a while. Scientists still aren’t aware completely of the interconnectedness of the environments, so we don’t know what happens when we lose something, like a coral reef, and what it means for the ecosystems.

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