Climate Change: Traditional Knowledge, Modern Science, and Perceptions

Discussions about how climate change affects Pacific Island nations usually focuses only on its imminence and intensity. However, Pacific Islanders have been adapting to natural changes for centuries (Vize 2012). They perceive climate change as a natural part of life. For example, the indigenous Ni-Vanuatu cultures consider natural disasters to be rather normal or at least occasionally expected (Galipaud 2002). The 1999 tsunami that struck Pentecost Island in Vanuatu reached heights of more than six meters yet caused only five fatalities in a population of 300, because most residents of Baie Martelli knew to leave, according to local custom (kastom). Interviews with 55 persons from the devastated area indicated that community leaders and others could sense the coming event (Walshe and Nunn 2012). International organizations admit to this fact as well. Director of PAHO/World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief programme poetically says, “Who knows more about their lands and their environment than the people who live closest to it?” (ReliefWeb 2015, p. 1).

Barnett and Campbell (2010) identify a gap between “inside and outside knowledge.” The inside knowledge of preliterate communities is transmitted using traditional learning methods, such as story-telling (Walshe and Nunn 2012). Outside knowledge, such as that from international research projects, usually lacks information about the local environment and ways of life (Baba 2008; UNESCO 2015). Yet, these outside organizations often influence curriculum design. Additionally, despite the demise of political control on the Pacific Islands, international aid organizations and locals often disagree about what is relevant and necessary information to be taughted among the Pacific population. This gap of knowledge and tensions created therefrom help explain why climate adaptation discussions in the region focus on generic vulnerabilities rather than specific regional issues.

To bridge this gap, the focus should be on assembling knowledge that is unique to each island, so that local communities can better understand pending disasters and prepare themselves for climate change in a sustainable manner that respects local traditions and customs. This traditional knowledge can make an even more substantial contribution to environmental management than non-indigenous, science-based externally imposed systems which may not address the unique needs of these islands (Davies 2015; McAdoo et al. 2009).

Global climate change poses a serious threat to this region (Dakaica 2005). Thus, it is imperative that future generations understand climate change in a way that is meaningful for this region. In the 2014 UNESCO project, Sharing Perceptions of Adaptation, Resilience, and Climate Knowledge (SPARCK), researchers worked with grassroots communities to gather information about climate change perceptions. In Samoa, 65% of teachers who were surveyed thought capacity-building workshops would be an effective method for teaching about global climate change. In Vanuatu, teachers preferred combining traditional knowledge with climate change science.

Whereas 98% of Samoan teachers thought that climate change education was of critical importance, only 48% of Vanuatu teachers thought so (UNESCO 2014a). In Fiji, 80% of communities were willing to take immediate action to counter climate change; in Vanuatu, 73% were willing and in Samoa, 64% (ibid). Respondents to the survey expressed concern that their ways of life would be negatively impacted by climate change. Their responses emphasized a point to consider; that is, climate education should improve adaptation skills rather than abstract knowledge (Lawler 2011).

The 2014 UNESCO project showcases the importance of evidence-based science for measuring Pacific Islanders’ perceptions of climate change. However, it does not investigate reasons for the varied responses and disparate education levels across the islands. The lack of high-quality education in general and climate change education in particular might explain the relatively poor coping strategies in these areas (GIZ 2016). Nevertheless, the variations in perception regarding climate education seem to be grounded in the communities’ understanding of climate change.

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