The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern is touring Europe, glad-handing with the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, and she seems to regard climate change as the topic on which she will establish her credentials. Yesterday she gave a speech to university students in Paris in which she spoke about the supposed impact of climate change on Pacific Island nations. She peppered her speech with a number of hoary myths, which she or the officials that wrote her speech should have known were untrue.
She spoke of the serious impact of cyclones on these countries, which is very real, but she went on to blame "the extreme weather that now rages through these countries on a regular basis." Cyclones have always been a feature of life in the South Pacific and the implication that they are becoming more frequent is false. The figures from the Fiji Meteorological Service's Nadi Tropical Cyclone Centre (which is the designated Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre of the World Meteorological Organization) show the following number of tropical cyclones for each of the last five decades:
You can see that there has been no increase in the frequency of cyclones during this period at all and in fact the trend seems to be downwards.
Ardern then went on to say, "it is not only storms that threaten Pacific nations. There is already salt water intrusion into fresh water supplies." Salt water intrusion into fresh water aquifers in Pacific Island nations is indeed a problem, but it is not primarily due to climate change. This study by the US Geological Survey [PDF 32MB] examines the causes of the problem, which is mostly due to over-exploitation of the fresh water resources. As the article explains, "If too much ground water is pumped, a freshwater lens may shrink enough that brackish water from the transition zone is drawn into the well. This process, known as saltwater intrusion, can result in the need to shut down wells and may reduce the availability of drinking water."
Finally, she repeated the oldest lie in the book when it comes to climate change and the South Pacific when she said "the oceans that have sustained local communities for thousands of years could soon rise up to swallow them forever." The idea that rising sea levels will inundate low-lying Pacific atolls is easy to accept but it is also false.
Sea levels are rising globally by a few millimetres per year (and have been since well before the Industrial Revolution) but according to this 2010 Australian study, "the analysis reveals a consistent trend of weak deceleration [of sea level rise] at each of these gauge sites throughout Australasia over the period from 1940 to 2000." Furthermore, research by Auckland University scientists reported in this 2010 article and in this 2018 study of Tuvalu (one of the nations Ardern gives as examples in her speech) shows that far from being being swamped by rising seas, most Pacific Island nations are actually increasing in size. It is true that there is a problem with coastal erosion on many Pacific islands but, like the salt water intrusion, it is a problem of resource use by the locals - in this case deforestation and over-development of coastal land.
Climate change is the least of the problems for Pacific Island nations, despite what Ardern would have us and her European hosts believe. Poor governance and corruption in the islands and trade protectionism by countries such as New Zealand and Australia (which have completely destroyed the export trades of most Pacific Islands and therefore their economic self-sufficiency) are the main factors driving unsustainable resource use in the islands. These are the issues Ardern should be addressing if she is serious about the welfare of our Pacific Island neighbours. But I suspect she is far more interested in promoting herself on the global political stage than solving real problems.