Pacific Islanders and Alaskans Unite for Climate Solutions

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What could Alaska and the Pacific Islands possibly have in common? When it comes to responding to a changing climate, there are more similarities than differences.

Crystal clear blue water shimmers in a lagoon.

Big Island, HI

(Credit: Shawn Carter. Shawn Carter)

At 212 square miles, the tiny island of Guam in the Pacific Ocean would fit into the state of Alaska over 3000 times. So what could Alaska and the Pacific Islands possibly have in common? When it comes to responding to a changing climate, there are more similarities than differences.

This was one of several themes that emerged at the 2016 Island Sustainability Conference held April 11-15, 2016 in Tumon, Guam. Over 300 Pacific Islanders along with six faculty, staff and students from the Department of the Interior (DOI) Alaska Climate Science Center (AK CSC) and the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP), a NOAA Regional Integrated Sciences & Assessment (RISA) program, participated in the conference.

The theme of the conference was Islanded Communities—communities separated by great distances and isolated by water (in the case of the islands) or land and water (in the case of Alaska). Presenters and participants discussed shared challenges and opportunities related to high energy costs, acute climate impacts, and the urgent need for research, collaboration, and solutions.

A climate change pre-conference workshop provided an opportunity for research counterparts from Alaska and the Pacific Islands to exchange information, build relationships, and learn from one another. Presentations on downscaled climate models, shoreline change, science communication and adaptation in each region were followed with lively question and answer sessions and discussions.

“The pre-conference workshop on climate change was an excellent opportunity for us to share our experiences in Alaska with our Pacific Island colleagues and learn about their experiences dealing with climate and climate impacts,” said Scott Rupp, University Director for the AK CSC. “We initiated many new collaborations with our sister organizations funded by the Department of Interior and NOAA.”

Discussions about climate change impacts and responses continued into the main conference. The keynote speakers included U.S. Senator for Alaska Lisa Murkowski and Tony de Brum, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands from January 2012 to January 2016.

Murkowski underscored the importance of developing innovations in energy, such as microgrid technologies, renewable energy integration and energy storage. Murkowski described how, “energy can be a staggering cost and thus a staggering burden for the people who live in remote areas that are detached from the grid.”

de Brum discussed his leading role in COP21 in Paris and the formation of the High Ambition Coalition—a coalition of over 100 nations that focused on developing a legally binding climate agreement, clear long-term goals on global warming, five year reviews on emissions commitments and a unified tracking system. With a peak elevation of 33 feet above sea level, de Brun also explained the significant risks faced by the Marshall Islands due to sea level rise.

AK CSC Director Steve Gray joined representatives from industry, government, education, and research on a plenary panel about planning for climate change. The panel discussed some of the challenges associated with integrating science in the climate change decision-making process and the need for better communication. Gray described how communicating climate change information can take more time and ongoing engagement and requires a different approach to communicating science than what has been sufficient in the past. "The reward structure needs to change," added Gray.

The conference was the first step towards greater collaboration between the AK CSC, ACCAP and climate programs in the Pacific Islands. Discussions will continue about how residents, decision makers, and scientists in islanded communities in both regions can better respond to the impacts of climate change.