This year’s State of the Environment for Oceania report focuses on people’s changing relationship with the seas that surround us, and how Oceania communities and governments are responding to today’s environmental challenges.
Beneath the surface of the waves, the temperature, volume and chemistry of our oceans is changing. A major report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature said the world is ‘completely unprepared’ for the impact of warming oceans on marine life, ecosystems, and people.
Ongoing sea level rise is displacing people from their homes, with seemingly little coordinated support or accurate assessment on how many people are affected in many places.
Caritas reports from Papua New Guinea show at least 30–35 coastal communities during the year had had people move away or lose homes due to worsening coastal erosion, while the Caritas Kiribati Youth Group continues to document the concerns about erosion, salination of water and loss of food on different Kiribati atolls, as well as help villagers adapt to change.
The year 2016 was the warmest year on record – the third consecutive year to break records.3 Record-breaking temperatures hit Australia in February 2017, while three extremely powerful late season cyclones impacted Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Australia.
People are still living with the impacts of earlier events such as cyclones Ian in Tonga 2014, Pam in 2015, and Winston in 2016. However, long-term resilience programmes have been put in place following such events, such as water tanks in Tonga and PNG, while recovery of older water sources or reservoirs has also played a role.
Offshore, the oil, gas and mineral exploitation continues with growing opposition from Indigenous groups and the Church in the Pacific. At the United Nations High-Level Political Forum in New York in July on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Caritas Oceania joined the Caritas Internationalis network to focus on progress towards SDG 14: to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources on protecting our ocean ecosystems, promoting the positive examples of Marine Protection Areas, as well as the dangers posed by seabed mining.
At the United Nations Ocean Conference in June 2017, Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said, “A more sustainable, productive use of marine resources must be encouraged at the global and local levels, while international and national regulatory norms must be robust to minimise harmful activities.” Striking the same note in our region, the Executive Committee of the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania said in August 2017: “Members of Parliament and local Governors and other civic authorities have a particular duty to promote long term economic and social development and to be vigilant in guarding against any attempts by international businesses to exploit our common resource.” As we look forward to the next United Nations climate conference, COP 23, chaired by Fiji in Bonn, Germany; Caritas and the Catholic Church in Oceania stand alongside those who suffer hardest from our abuse of the Earth, of the good things God has given us in soil, water, air and ocean.