Farmer bending near Taro leaves

Communities and Cultures

Island communities that depend on imported goods have heightened sensitivities to the impacts of climate change. Changing conditions also bring serious challenges to traditional lifestyles and cultures.

Mounting threats to food and water security, infrastructure, and public health and safety will have a negative impact on many communities across the Pacific Islands. Because Pacific Islands are almost entirely dependent upon imported food, fuel, and material, the vulnerability of ports and airports to extreme events, sea level rise, and increasing wave heights is of great concern. Sea level rise and flooding are also expected to overwhelm sewer systems and threaten public sanitation, endangering public health.

Indigenous cultures

Traditional canoe building in the Marshall Islands. The  Waan Aelõñ in Majel (WAM) Program is committed to teaching young Marshallese men and women canoe building and empowering them with skills for a sustainable, happy future.

The traditional lifestyles and cultures of indigenous communities in all Pacific Islands will be seriously affected by climate change. This threat is particularly acute for Pacific Island cultures due to the familial and divine relationships these cultures have with the natural world and defined places. The implications of severing ties with places, species, and cultural resources could devastate some communities.

Sea level rise and associated flooding is expected to destroy coastal artifacts and structures, or even the entire land base associated with some cultural traditions. An increased propensity for drought will threaten traditional food sources such as taro and breadfruit, and coral death from warming-induced bleaching will threaten subsistence fisheries in island communities.

Climate change-related environmental deterioration for communities at or near the coast, coupled with other socioeconomic or political motivations, is expected to lead individuals, families, or communities to consider moving to new locations. Depending on the scale and distance of the migration, a variety of challenges face the migrants and the communities receiving them. Migrants need to establish themselves in their new communities, find employment, and access services. At the same time, communities where migrants settle may need to increase the capacity of their infrastructure, labor market, commerce, natural resources, and governance structures in order to absorb a sudden burst of population growth.

View of Ailuk Atoll in the Marshall Islands from a traditional canoe.

Adaptation activities

Adaptive capacity across the region varies. Capabilities for coping with change reflect the histories of governance, the economies, and the geographical features of each island.

High islands can better support larger populations and infrastructure, attract industry, and foster institutional growth, and these conditions bolster their adaptive capacity. However, these conditions are accompanied by larger policy or legal hurdles that complicate coastal planning.

Low islands have a different set of challenges. Climate change-related migration, for example, is particularly relevant to the low island communities in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Relocating from these islands presents significant practical, cultural, and legal challenges for migrants.

Some Pacific Island nations and agencies have begun drawing up and implementing adaptation plans, yet they are eager for more research on the effectiveness of adaptation strategies for their communities. The regional culture of communication and collaboration provides a strong foundation for adaptation planning and will be important for building resilience in the face of the changing climate.

Banner Image Credit
Taro Farming, by Victoria Keener. Used with permission
Last modified
22 November 2016 - 12:35pm