The Cook Islands adapt to global warming and climate change

February, 2012

Value Based Learning

 In this report, originally posted on,,  Sister  Margaret O’Dwyer, DC describes the threat posed by global warming on the Earth’s oceans  and weather systems, and as a result, on the life of the residents of the Cook Islands. She describes how islanders are planning to adapt to these threats.    

Scroll down to the end of the article for questions based on the  Earth Charter's ethical principles to evaluate the impact of global warming and climate change on people on the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are diligently planning to protect their “enua” (lands) and “moana” (ocean) from effects of global warming and climate change, even though they bear minimal responsibility for causing them. 

“Big countries are into mitigation, but adaptation is our only choice,” said Deyna Marsh, Education and Awareness Coordinator for the Cook Islands National Environment Services. “Changes are already happening. Sea levels are rising all around the Pacific. If nothing is done now, we will lose our Islands, our traditions, our culture. Buildings and infrastructure on the foreshore will be lost or damaged, and both food security and the health of the people will be affected.”

A workshop held in Rarotonga, February 28 to March 4, produced a Cook Islands Climate Change Adaptation Plan. If the Plan is approved by managers of the Kyoto Protocol Climate Change Adaptation Fund, the Cook Islands could receive $5 million in support.

Pasha Carruthers, Cook Islands National Environment Service’s Island Futures Manager and organizer of the workshop, says global warming and climate change are affecting the Islands in many and serious ways.

 First, sea levels are rising at the rate of about .5 millimeters per year, or about 4 centimeters over a decade, she said. Rising sea levels affect the pearl industry and tourism. Pearls need certain temperatures for peak production. If temperatures rise, the pearl returns aren’t favorable.

Secondly, the Islands are experiencing more severe weather events. Cyclone Pat in early 2010 caused nearly $12 million (New Zealand) in devastation to the Island of Aitutaki while Tropical Storm 11(later Cyclone Sarah) destroyed the School in Penrhyn. The frequency and intensity of cyclones is up."When we get cyclones, we get substantial damage to infrastructure," said Mathilda Miriea-Tairea, who was Project Manager for The Cyclone Emergency Assistance Loan, which helped the Cooks recover from five cyclones which struck various islands in early 2005. "Harbors, roads, schools, buildings and hospitals all required repairs." One of the five cyclones, Percy, which struck the Island of Pukaka, also served as an example of how powerful waves can salinate taro patches, destroying the crop and threatening food security.

Third, there is a shift in rainfall and weather patterns. According to Cook Islands Meteorological Service, the average temperature is increasing by about a degree, so seasons will be longer, hotter, and drier. Some islands are receiving more rainfall than usual, while others, such as Penrhyn, are experiencing drought. "If you don't get the seasonal rainfall, or the cycles are out of whack, you could have empty water tanks," said Carruthers. Storm surge damage also will increase. Planters are noticing changes in growing seasons and are researching ways to make plants more adaptable to heat, drought, and higher rainfall. Food security is a definite issue.

Fourthly, reefs suffer extensively from global warming. Reefs protect shorelines from storm surges, serve as homes to marine life, and attract tourists. But rising sea temperatures are affecting the coral. Coral can bleach due to heat stress which damages the algae which supply them with food. Carruthers mentions another, relatively new, phenomenon which requires more study. “Five years ago, we didn’t think that as more carbon dioxide enters the air, the ocean takes it up through phytoplankton and stores it, causing acidification,” she said. “That makes the ocean less alkaline, which puts more pressure on coral reefs. It dissolves them. The coral reefs can’t withstand it.”

 Following the workshop, Island leaders are gathering more data, brainstorming about adaptation and suggesting many solutions, such as planting more coconut trees, improving cyclone shelters, researching weather-resistant crop trees to prevent soil erosion, better preparation for disaster reliefs, and greater reef protection. The Pacific Conference of Churches issued a position paper in April, 2009, particularly related to climate change refugees. “To continue to walk the current path of ecological destruction is not only recklessness; it’s a sin,” the paper states. What would Islanders say to larger nations who are great carbon emitters?  “They need to care about the little guys,” says Ms. Marsh, “Take a little more time to consider us. We’re humans, too! We also have communities, and we are profoundly affected by climate change.”


A value framework for evaluating social and ecological realities  

 Anita L. Wenden

Ecological sustainability

  • According to the report, who is primarily responsible for increasing carbon emissions which have increased the rate of global warming and climate change? How is climate change and global warming affecting Earth’s life support systems, e.g. sea levels and the weather in the Cook Islands? 
  • Do humans have the right to a life style that so affects the Earth’s well being?  In other words, should Earth rights be taken into account in evaluating the impact of the human lifestyles,  the carbon emissions of which affects the functioning of the Earth’s life support systems in this way? Why? Why not?
  • Mitigation refers to attempts  to control and reduce global warming by reducing the emission of carbon. Do a web search using the key words  ‘ mitigation of carbon footprints’  or ‘carbon mitigation’ to determine whether & how community groups or  governments in industrialized and developing  countries are  making any efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Social justice

  • How has the life of the residents of the Cook Islands been affected by the impact of global warming on the oceans and weather? Would you consider these consequences to be a violation of their human rights? i.e. What rights do citizens have to a weather system that ensures the fulfillment of their basic human needs?
  •  How should the people of the Cook Islands be compensated  for the threat to their livelihood and wellbeing posed by the consequences of climate change ?  Who should be responsible for providing this compensation?  Who should benefit from such compensation ? Why?

 Intergenerational equity

  • How will the threat to Earth’s oceans and weather system posed by high carbon emissions affect the quality of life of people in future generations?  Would such a threat be a violation of  their human rights? If so, which ones? 
  •  What should local and national governments do to ensure that the rights of future generations are not violated in this regard?  international decision-making bodies? 

 Participatory decisionmaking

  • How has the government of the Cook Islands responded to the threat posed by climate change on its citizens? In dealing with these problems, have the concerns of individuals and groups been solicited ? of the most powerless and vulnerable groups? If not should they be?