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  • Storm brewing over Pacific nations as climate and debt crises collide

Storm brewing over Pacific nations as climate and debt crises collide


Across the Pacific, people are picking up the bones of their ancestors like shells on the beach. Burial grounds are being washed away by rising tides. Communities are shoring up seawalls with old tyres.  

I was raised on the beautiful island of Tonga. When I was a child, my parents and grandparents would come out every morning to look at the horizon. They would look at the clouds and see the patterns to understand what laid before us that day.  

Nowadays, things are different. Children playing and swimming at the beaches see the patterns in the clouds and run back to alert us to a disaster. This is now becoming a regular occurrence.  

After storms, I visit my people and I am always lifted by their resilience and their spirit of helping each other. But when I delve deeper, they share their real emotions, which are full of pain, heartache and fear. You see, in the Pacific our people are strong. We are resilient, but even we have our limits. And we have reached our limit. 

Nowadays, when I wake up in the morning and look out to sea, I see two clouds. Two dark and looming clouds. One is climate change. This cloud brings rising sea levels, more frequent cyclones and king tides like we have never seen before.  

It is joined by another cloud. This one is debt. Increasingly frequent and severe weather means that Pacific Island nations are struggling to rebuild. We feel like we are going backwards.


'We need the Loss and Damage fund to truly listen to Pacific Island communities. It must be accessible to those who need it, and not push countries further into debt that we can ill afford.'


Vital infrastructure such as homes, bridges, farms and fisheries, take years to rebuild while crops and livestock take a similar period to restore. It is extremely expensive, and it is money we simply don’t have. 

Last year at the United Nations climate talks, nations agreed on a Loss and Damage fund; a fund created to compensate developing countries impacted by climate change, like my home of Tonga in the Pacific Island nations.

We don’t contribute much to climate change. In fact, we contribute less than 0.5 per cent of all global emissions. But we certainly pay for it in our futures, and the futures of our children. We need compensation for this injustice. 

The Loss and Damage fund is an important step towards climate justice, but we can’t forget that the 2009 pledge to spend $100 billion a year in climate aid has still not been met. In fact, the pledge to spend $100 billion a year is far from achieved.

Right now, the Pacific region needs nearly US $1 billion per year in financing to adapt our infrastructure to climate change. We receive much less than this. 

Unfortunately, even when money is sent to the Pacific for climate change adaptation and mitigation, it is spent in a questionable manner. Large infrastructure projects like wharfs and airports have taken up over US $300 million in funds intended to address climate change in the Pacific yet contribute more to economic development than helping communities adapt to climate change. 

I hear from communities in Tonga, Papua New Guinea’s Admiralty Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Samoa who face serious challenges in accessing funds; challenges like lengthy accreditation delays, or onerous and complex grant application processes.

Women and disability groups rarely know what options might be available to them, and it isn’t easy to figure it out either. To properly support and compensate the Pacific region, funds must reach the right people in a timely fashion, before our homes, livelihoods and culture are destroyed forever by climate change. 

‘Loss and Damage’ is at its heart about climate injustice. Loss and Damage is meant to pay for the intangible as well as the tangible, for the loss not just of my home, but for the loss of my ancestors’ graves, for the loss of the way of life that I grew up with on this beautiful island, which is slowly being worn away by rising tides and disasters.  

We need the Loss and Damage fund to truly listen to Pacific Island communities. It must be accessible to those who need it, and not push countries further into debt that we can ill afford. It must prioritise the most vulnerable, including women and girls, children, the elderly and people living with disabilities. 

The global community has an ethical and moral obligation to support Pacific Island countries to adapt to climate change. We are at a critical time in our fight for climate resilience, especially in the Pacific which is facing existential threats. Put simply, it is now or never. The real challenge for the world is to see with their eyes, and listen with their ears, to those on the frontlines of climate change. Listen, see, then act, and act now before it is too late.  




Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi is the first ever cardinal from Tonga and the youngest member of the College of Cardinals. He is also the President of Caritas Oceania and represents the region on key issues, especially climate change.  

Main image: Agreeing to the Kioa Declaration, when Pacific groups came together to discuss their shared issues in the region prior to COP27. (Caritas Australia)

Topic tags: Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, Climate, Pacific, Environment, Loss, Damage



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Existing comments

Listening to those at the pointy end of climate change - the beautiful island nations of the Pacific - is essential for our hard hearts. The preservation of our natural world and the need to act has never been greater. Ko via meke kei au, Pacific island nations? We want to help.

Pam | 06 March 2023  

The effects of climate change on small nations such as Tonga is catastrophic. It is equally catastrophic but not as immediately obvious in our country, Australia. with the unprecedented floods and fires we are experiencing with increasing regularity. The building of ports and airstrips throughout the Pacific using monies intended to alleviate the effects of climate change is scandalous and serves a certain Asian aspiring superpower in its quest for conquest over the pacific and its natural resources. Australia needs to wake up, ignore the hysteria of Fox and Sky News interests and ban the sale of coal and gas to the world's biggest contributors to man-induced climate change, viz, China and India. There is little we can do to influence the other great polluter, the USA, other than lead by good example. Australia needs to wake up to the fact that climate change is not selective in affecting countries on the basis of the percentage that a country contributes to carbon based emissions - the idiotic premise promoted by the extreme views promulgated by Fox and Sky News and their paid warriors.

John Frawley | 07 March 2023  

With twocyclones hitting Vanuatu onlly weeks apart and one New Zealand combined with record rain and floods in our tropical North impacting mainly indigenous peoples who don't have the resources to cope the writing is literally on the wall. We must bite the bullet and stop fossil fuel exploitation now! Dangerous climate change is happening now. If we don't act we too will feel the impact with food shortages and massive rises in insurance premiums and other economic and social impacts.

Gavin O'Brien; (FRMetS) | 10 March 2023  

These nations in danger of rising sea levels should take some lessons from Holland. The Dutch Solution to Rising Sea Levels? Live With the Water.
Their philosophy? Don’t fight the rising water, adapt to live with it. Around 17% of the country's current land area has been reclaimed from the sea or lakes. 26% of its area is located below sea level.The area of Holland? 41,850 km² 17% is 7114 sq km reclaimed from the sea. 26 % is 10,881 sq km behind substantial sea walls on top of which are built major highways.
The Dutch have barges laden with stone arriving from all over the world every day in Rotterdam. They are masters of dykes, poldars, sea gates and detention ponds.
All the problems of the South Sea islands have been faced and overcome in Holland. 

Francis Armstrong | 22 March 2023  

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