When people think about climate change on small island states and territories that are situated in the major oceans of the world, the first aspect that comes to mind is the threat of sea-level rise and the associated flooding of low-lying land. But climate change affects these islands in many more ways, and researchers and practitioners from these regions are pioneering ways to adapt to a changing environment. In this Viewpoint, nine researchers from islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans and the Caribbean discuss what they see as the most pressing research questions, concerns and knowledge gaps for their regions. Their contributions highlight the many ways in which islands are affected by climate change, as well as the depth of knowledge that exists on the local environment and adaptation strategies.

Anita Latai-Niusulu: climate change research in Oceania

Pacific islanders and communities have lived and endured many environmental challenges since they settled their islands. These experiences, which span centuries, have led to the development of relevant knowledge and skills that are crucial to their current and future survival. Discussing and recording these knowledge and survival skills, in the context of climate change, will empower Pacific islanders to reflect on, revive and employ old strategies or adapt to new ways of living. However, a challenge in the Pacific is that most research questions continue to be asked from a scientifically, Western standpoint, and reductionist approaches and methods continue to marginalize Pacific island peoples and their knowledge. Research is still predominantly externally derived and driven in a top-down manner by national governments and external institutions.

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“E agatonu Manua i le fesili” is a Samoan phrase that approximately means ‘the proper practice or attitude leads to correct and just behaviour’. It is important that theoretical and methodological approaches capture the varied and complex knowledge and experiences of Pacific islanders and communities and their conceptualizations of their resilience in the light of current climate change and future predictions. Research frameworks in this space must reflect the holistic way in which Pacific islanders see the world and themselves in it. Longitudinal and qualitative study processes that focus on the analysis of languages and human behavioural patterns within local environments would also be useful.

Currently, academic research that challenges existing Western knowledge about climate change, and pushes forward theoretical understandings of climate change adaptation, is slower to be considered by external and government agencies and communities, and translated into action. Typically, this type of research is shared through involvement in conferences, national stakeholder consultations, policy dialogue discussions, community displays, and teaching and learning materials for students. The latter ensures that this research contributes to the training of Samoa’s current and future workforce. We can overcome this challenge by holding policy dialogues and discussions that bring together national governments, relevant external agencies and local research institutions to ensure that national policies and strategies are informed by sound research.

Moreover, external environmental agencies and governments need to consider the role of local social scientists, using this expertise to engage with communities, including households, to continuously track and document individual and household priorities and future aspirations in the face of climate change. Several Pacific islands such as Samoa have developed community plans that record some of this information. Community leaders and national government agencies must continue to be proactive and creative in ensuring these are living documents and empowering their use. Historical and geographical information, the current realities of communities, and their future plans and aspirations must be added into the documents.

Jerome Aucan: addressing coastal vulnerability in a maritime continent

The Pacific is dotted with countries and territories that have large exclusive economic zones, and relatively small land masses and population. For these islands, the ocean is both a key provider of resources (for example, fishing, tourism and transport) and a source of natural coastal hazards.

The primary cause of coastal hazards is the occurrence of extreme sea-level events resulting in large-scale flooding, mainly driven by short-lived wave events but compounded by slowly varying climate-related sea-level rise. Early warning systems for these events are required for the protection of populations, and information products are necessary for the planning of maritime activities. Similarly, accurate projections of the severity and frequency of these events are needed for adequate climate adaptation strategies. A combination of data and models is necessary to reasonably forecast the various components of these extreme sea-level events.

Some processes, such as wave transformation at the coast, require high-resolution modelling, taking into account the specific geomorphology of reef-fringed tropical islands. Too often, general formulae developed for beaches have been used in the literature, mainly because data from coastal bathymetry and coastal wave and sea-level measurements are not available. These formulae are inadequate for the coastlines of whole islands. Local governments can be more involved in the collection and curation of these necessary data, provided they receive adequate support and capacity building. Although locally operated, these coastal observations and data systems need to be interoperable and standardized through regional initiatives such as the Pacific Islands regional alliance for the Global Ocean Observing System (PI-GOOS).

Some other components that contribute to extreme sea-level events in the tropical Pacific, in particular the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, require understanding of basin-scale processes. For these, modelling and data collection are typically out of reach of small Pacific nations as they require basin-scale-coupled atmosphere–ocean modelling as well as deep ocean moorings, research vessels and satellite remote sensing. These, therefore, require an international and concerted effort.

Given the role of the tropical Pacific Ocean in the global climate system, a number of ocean observing systems have been deployed by developed nations over the past few decades. Ironically, these large-scale observing systems have had little engagement and collaboration with the Pacific islands despite their proximity. Linking and improving observing systems at national, regional and global scales in the Pacific is not only a necessity for the habitants of the Pacific islands region, but it will also benefit a large fraction of the world’s population by improving weather and seasonal predictions in other regions.

Michelle Mycoo: building bridges between research and climate action

The gap between research and climate action in the Caribbean is large. Local climate action has been undermined by a lack of robust data collection, good governance, stakeholder engagement and fiscal resources.

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Caribbean small island developing states (SIDS) are faced with data constraints that limit their ability to assess risk and plan appropriate responses. Meteorological and environmental data are scattered over several institutions and locations, and the small size of islands affects the availability and accuracy of downscaled climate data and projections. Specific data on loss and damage are a major constraint that Caribbean negotiators face. Steps should be taken to enhance the local data management, including enabling downscaling of global climate models that will be relevant to the Caribbean, enhancing the network of data capture instrumentation and improving public access to data and information.

Governments have limited capacity for assimilating research findings and implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures; they tend to limit resource transfer to local governments for political reasons. Politicians appear to be more pre-occupied with photogenic infrastructural projects that they perceive will win elections, rather than with climate change adaptation and mitigation measures that have a longer gestation period. Moreover, a stretched civil service is faced with few climate experts arising from a brain drain within the Caribbean, thus has insufficient human and technical capacity to aid in climate action. To address the gap, a small pool of Caribbean scientists who were authors of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report have been actively involved in articulating the key messages of the report to policymakers.

As financial pledges made by Caribbean governments during the pandemic never materialized in many cases, the distrust between national and local authorities and between the people and politicians is high in a post-COVID-19 era, which further exacerbates the barriers in local climate action. It is crucial to rebuild trust and integrate governments, the private sector, academia, think tanks and local communities in collective action. The Caribbean private sector has demonstrated agility in promoting the use of solar water heaters and innovative climate-resilient agricultural technologies.

The growing climate finance gap is also a concern, which influences research and innovation as well as the implementation of policies. Current climate and development finance systems fail to accommodate SIDS’ unique needs, realities and vulnerabilities. Data limitations, high transaction costs and small project sizes make it difficult for SIDS to attract investments. The complexity of the climate finance landscape and the inconsistent requirements of multilateral climate funds and donors further exacerbate the challenge. Now, Caribbean negotiators are becoming more concerned about the loss and damage fund, and are developing climate diplomacy skills to negotiate the terms and conditions to access this fund.

Carlos A. Mancina: conservation challenges for Cuban biodiversity in the face of climate change

The effects of climate change on islands such as Cuba may be exacerbated by the intrinsic characteristics of many insular species, such as limited distribution, low dispersal and low competition capacity. This can be amplified by both direct and indirect human activity, leading to further environmental deterioration (for example, fragmentation and degradation of natural habitats and invasive alien species). It is critical to understand the sensitivity and adaptability of native island species to climate change in the context of broader global change.

We recently evaluated the exposure to climate change of 402 endemic flora and fauna of the Cuban archipelago, and projected that 85% of the species could be highly exposed and could reduce their current distribution range within the next four decades under high-emissions scenarios. Extensive areas could lose the climatic conditions necessary to maintain the present biotic communities. Climate refuges, areas that retain conditions that allow for the survival of high-priority groups, including local endemics and threatened species, were also identified. However, concerningly, only 32% of the surface area of such refuges is within currently protected areas.

In my opinion, among the most important challenges for biodiversity conservation are access to research funding and the incorporation of climate change risks into national policies and priorities. Owing to the threats predicted by climate change scenarios, the Cuban government has defined a strategy known as Tarea Vida (Life Task). This plan defines actions to minimize the impact of flooding and extreme climate events such as hurricanes on coastal areas of high vulnerability. However, these actions have an anthropocentric perspective, because among the highest priorities is to reduce the impact on human communities and on strategic economic areas (for example, tourist zones).

One of the greatest strengths of conservation in Cuba is the existence of a protected area network that covers the core zones for terrestrial and marine biodiversity. However, a lack of resources limits the ability of the administrations of these areas to adequately develop their management plans. As a consequence of the United States’s embargo against Cuba, the island’s access to international funds is very restricted compared with other countries in the region. In recent decades, projects financed by international organizations have been developed. While this is a positive move, a remaining limitation is that these projects support management and capacity-building actions but rarely provide resources for basic research. Such research is still lacking in many fields and is essential for directing resources to systematize monitoring of potentially vulnerable groups and for designing subsequent adaptation and mitigation actions. In many cases, owing to the lack of specific resources, basic research projects have little sustainability over time, an issue amplified by the associated migration of technical personnel.

Sarina Theys: an existential threat for Pacific island states and their identities

Sea-level rise jeopardizes the physical existence of Pacific island states such as the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu. The disappearance of entire countries is an urgent, complex and globally unique challenge. This major challenge has dominated national and regional agendas in the Pacific. As such, Pacific island leaders refer to climate change as the single greatest threat to the security of the people of the Pacific and have highlighted that climate change is an existential threat to the Pacific island countries.

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The security and existential threats expressed by Pacific island leaders tend to be equated with the territorial impact of sea-level rise. This focus is important because the territory of a state is one of the core elements that constitutes its sovereignty. This implies that a country ceases to exist if it loses its territory.

In my research on the ontological (in)security of Pacific island states and islanders in the context of climate change, I argue that climate change also poses an existential threat to the identities of Pacific island states and their inhabitants. Identities are representations of an actor’s understanding (how they perceive themselves) that inform their behaviour. Although Pacific island leaders have acknowledged that climate change threatens identities, the topic has not received much scholarly and policy attention. Only a few Pacific island states mention the word ‘identity’ in their climate change policies, but they do not define identity, distinguish between different identity types, explain how climate change affects identities or propose mechanisms to deal with identity threats.

There is no systematic and detailed study that investigates how and which identities are threatened by climate change, and the implications this has for the actors involved and for climate change policies. This is problematic, because without secure identities, states and people do not exist. Identities give meaning to physical entities and affirm a state and a person’s physical existence.

Climate change can threaten individual and collective identities on an individual, national, regional and global level. Individual identities set actors apart from other actors, whereas collective identities refer to a social category defined by membership rules. Identities are developed and enacted by individuals and state actors that represent the state and act on behalf of the state on a national, regional and global level. This approach provides a holistic understanding of how identities are experienced and enacted by individuals and state actors. This is important because I argue that identity threats can be experienced on different levels and in multiple forms, and we need to look at all levels and forms to effectively integrate identity into climate change policies.

Krishna Kumar Kotra: conceding that water quality is important for survival amid climate change impacts

The Pacific island countries and territories bear the brunt of climate change, most directly through frequent tropical cyclones and extreme weather events. These ravage communities and their environment, including disrupting water resources. Vanuatu, a small archipelago nation in the South Pacific, has shown its vulnerability to their devastating effects. Here, tropical cyclones used to be rare, but in recent years, it is evident that they are becoming stronger and more frequent. In 2015, Tropical Cyclone Pam struck, followed by Tropical Cyclone Harold in 2020, and in 2023, Tropical Cyclones Kevin and Judy hit the country within days of each other. Climate change is believed to be the driving force behind this.

Each of these tropical cyclones wreaked havoc on our water infrastructure, leaving our communities struggling to access clean water. We saw water tanks ripped apart or blown away, damaging the erecting structures. Gutters and roofs collecting water were found tangled in treetops. As we worked to recover from each disaster, further cyclones have exacerbated the challenges. Recently, El Niño conditions have led to below average rainfall, further impacting our water supplies for drinking and other needs.

The aftermath of these cyclones presents a dire situation for our communities in Vanuatu, where access to safe and clean water becomes a critical issue. Many times, water quality will be compromised for mere survival. With each new disaster, the strain on our resources and infrastructure grows, making it increasingly difficult to restore water services to pre-crisis levels. Our work with the International WaterCentre and the Institute of Sustainable Futures on water quality analysis and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), alongside the Department of Water Resources, is to provide feedback on quality and the necessary recommendations for impacted communities for improvement and better management.

The remoteness and lack of technical support on small islands delay recovery from cyclones and exacerbate the impact of climate change on communities. Yet, amidst these adversities, the people of Vanuatu demonstrate remarkable resilience. Drawing on our traditional knowledge and practices, we adapt to the changing climate landscape. Traditional methods such as using coconut husk layers for filtration, exposing water to sunlight on rooftops or treating water with indigenous leaves showcase our ways for cleaning water. Our ability to persevere during water quality issues and infrastructure damage underscores our determination to overcome the hardships brought about by climate change. However, the ongoing struggle to restore water quality and infrastructure highlights the urgent need for support and resources from the relevant national and international agencies to aid our vulnerable communities in their recovery efforts, ensuring an even more resilient future.

Tannecia Stephenson: research in support of climate resilience within the Caribbean

Caribbean small islands have long been at the frontlines of climate change, being affected by rising sea levels, more variable rainfall, stronger storms and hurricanes, and more extreme air and ocean temperatures. Similarly, climate variability and change has had extensive impacts on, for example, our region’s water and food security, health services, tourism, education and sports. It is critical then, that as Caribbean researchers, we can pose and answer research questions around climate, from within our region and in partnership with international collaborators.

We have advanced in understanding mean, and some extreme, climate characteristics for the ‘usual suspects’ — rainfall, air temperature, ocean surface temperature and sea level. However, to provide international advocacy and to support local governments and private sectors to build climate resilience and help them access climate finance, more work is needed in other areas as well.

For example, we need to better quantify observed and future changes in more variables including wind, wave height, humidity and solar radiation, as well as more complex extreme events such as heatwaves, flash droughts or compound events. Similarly, studies of detection and attribution need to be advanced to support discussions on loss and damage. Most studies mainly focus on physical variables, indicating a need for interdisciplinary studies that explore impacts in key sectors such as water, agriculture, health and infrastructure. Furthermore, migration and displacement and other risks for cities and settlements on islands are not yet well enough studied.

However, as we advance a Caribbean climate science agenda, we are often constrained by data availability. Reliable weather observations that are accessible to Caribbean researchers are often relatively short, covering only a few decades. Our alternative approaches using gridded datasets must contend with resolutions that typically do not represent the islands’ environment well enough. As our region strengthens or creates regional weather and climate repositories, and socioeconomic databases, we will be better placed to undertake local and region-wide studies.

Our ability to generate future climate data at the scale of small islands, and doing so from within the region is equally important. The Caribbean has undertaken model experiments generally using regional climate models and approaches such as statistical downscaling. We are working to expand these efforts, including to incorporate machine learning.

Caribbean researchers welcome partnerships that prioritize capacity development initiatives, and that enable generation of information to underpin policy, climate financing and climate justice advocacy, or that can move our region and the globe forward in achieving greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

Ameer Ebrahim: ensuring Seychelles blue carbon future

Seagrass meadows and mangrove habitats provide coastal resilience against sea-level rise and storms. They also support local livelihoods, enhance coastal biodiversity and are important carbon sinks; the coastal ecosystems of Seychelles potentially hold 1–3% of the world’s blue carbon stocks. Within the Indian Ocean, Seychelles has led the way in blue carbon research, with three noteworthy projects so far: the Roadmap to Blue Carbon Opportunities in Seychelles, the Blue Carbon Assessment for Mangrove Systems in Seychelles and the Seychelles Seagrass and Carbon Mapping Project.

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As a local marine scientist, I have engaged deeply with two of these projects. Alongside researchers from Deakin University, Australia, we explored the blue carbon opportunities in Seychelles, producing a roadmap that we presented to the government of Seychelles in 2022. This roadmap sought to explore the blue carbon future of Seychelles by developing a first-pass assessment of potential blue carbon opportunities in Seychelles while building local capacity and literacy on blue carbon.

I was also part of a national key expert team that extensively assessed the blue carbon storage potential of Seychelles’s mangrove ecosystems. These studies have given Seychelles an accurate estimate of the carbon sequestered within its waters. They also highlighted the gaps and next steps required to further the government’s blue carbon agenda.

There needs to be strong political will to action these outputs and push environmental agendas in our country. In 2015, Seychelles signed the Paris Agreement and indicated that adaptation to climate change was a high priority, in 2022, President Wavel Ramkalawan stated (at COP27) his goal to protect 100% of Seychelles’s mangroves and seagrass meadows by 2030, and the Seychelles Constitution (Article 38) recognizes the right of every person to live in, and enjoy, a clean and healthy environment.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of prioritization and technical capacity to implement policies and manage plans to establish marine protected areas, implement fishing quotas, regulate pollution levels and combat climate change, as well as a lack of capacity for effective monitoring and enforcement. This presents major stumbling blocks to upholding Article 38 and following through with recommendations from key research as well as international agreements that Seychelles is a party to.

The Seychelles government has been seen to bow to political pressure. Large-scale developments threatening mangroves and seagrass meadows have been sanctioned, and previously established no-take zones have been re-negotiated by international developers on grounds that they are not evidence-based nor data-driven.

The viability of our marine environment, and its ability to sequester blue carbon, lies ultimately in the hands of our elected leaders. A collaborative approach engaging local communities, different ministries, the private sector, non-profit organizations and other stakeholders is needed to effect change. Science must guide policy and legislation, as long-term sustainability cannot be achieved through decisions made on the basis of politics alone.

Mariyam Nashath: fisheries and marine research in the Maldives

The Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, comprises approximately 1,190 low-lying coral islands with only around 298 km2 of dry land within a broader nation of approximately 90,000 km2. The fisheries industry, which mainly involves harvesting of tuna species, is heavily relied upon for food security, employment and exports. This sector employs a significant portion of the domestic workforce, particularly in the outer atolls, providing crucial support for families through food and employment opportunities.

The tuna fishery in the Maldives is noted for its sustainable, environmentally friendly methods, with more than 85% of the catch coming from pole-and-line techniques using live bait. Climate change is increasingly affecting both ecosystems and live bait species essential for tuna fishing. Coral reefs, vital for bait fish, are vulnerable to global warming, while tuna are sensitive to changes in ocean temperatures. High ocean temperatures have led to mass bleaching events, with the 2016 event impacting 73% of corals. The ongoing 2024 bleaching event is likely to be even more severe. To address these impacts, the Maldivian government has temporarily halted land reclamation projects to minimize stress from sedimentation on corals during their recovery phase.

Despite the critical importance of live bait to the tuna fishery, few studies have been conducted on these resources in the Maldives. Stock assessment is challenging due to the small size, short lifespan and wide distribution of live bait species. Yet, managing live bait resources is essential for the sustainability of the fishery. In 2021, in collaboration with the International Pole and Line Foundation, I conducted a live bait study from central to southern Maldives. The primary objective was to create high-resolution maps of live bait fishing areas for conservation and management, by interviewing fishers to identify specific areas, times of day, seasons and target species. The study revealed that many fishers believe that there is a significant loss of access to fishing grounds due to the allocation of reefs and islands for tourism and other developments, and have concerns related to the negative impacts of both dredging and coral bleaching on fishing activity.

Collecting data over vast marine areas in the Maldives requires significant resources, as 99% of the country is ocean. Collaboration between experienced scientists and fishers is essential to document numerous species, their composition and habitats. Conducting these studies often involves travelling to outer islands, and there is a shortage of trained professionals in this field, which complicates data collection efforts. Climate-related factors, such as severe weather, also pose challenges to data collection. Despite these obstacles, investigating the specific effects of climate change on live bait resources and tuna populations is crucial, and developing and implementing effective management strategies to mitigate ongoing impacts is vital for the fishery’s future sustainability.