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Environmental Peacebuilding in the Pacific

It has been said that the impact of climate change on small islands is no less threatening than the dangers guns and bombs pose to large nations.[i] Rising sea levels, ocean warming, soil erosion, and increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters all impact most profoundly on the livelihoods, human security, food security and water security of the Pacific island countries that are least able to cope with these threat multipliers. In regions where natural resources come under strain—through growing demand, overexploitation, environmental degradation, or other causes of scarcity—nativism will surge and violent conflict may erupt.[ii] The Department of Defence must, therefore, learn to anticipate and manage risks that develop as a result of climate change to build resilience among our Pacific neighbours.[iii] After all, Australia’s national interest is closely linked to the stability and prosperity of our immediate region, which spans Papua New Guinea (PNG), Timor-Leste and Pacific island countries and territories (PICTs) in the South Pacific.[iv]

No long-term foreign policy objective is more important to Australia, argues the 2017 Foreign Affairs White Paper, than ensuring our region evolves peacefully.[v] At the same time, Australia’s strategic weight, proximity and resources place high expectations on us to respond to instability or natural disasters—and, as the 2016 Defence White Paper points out, climate change means we will be called on to do so more often.[vi] The Australian Government’s approach to better protecting and advancing our interests in a changing Indo-Pacific region begins with substantial investments in the foundations of our national strength. That means building a more capable, agile and potent Australian Defence Force (ADF) and boosting defence engagement with countries in the region, including through more training, exercises and capacity-building.[vii]

Environmental peacebuilding may provide a useful approach to focusing this effort where it may be most effective—in supporting the equitable resolution of conflicts less than war that are caused or exacerbated by environmental degradation, scarcity, overexploitation of natural resources, or the effects of climate change. Over the past two decades, the expectation that environmental cooperation will foster regional peace and stability has led to increased allocation of international funding to such initiatives, and recognition among academics and practitioners of the rising importance of environmental peacebuilding.[viii]

What is environmental peacebuilding? For the academic, it is a discursive construct in which the biophysical environment is conceived in terms of scientific definitions and human needs, rather than in terms of state security.[ix] For the practitioner, it is an analytical lens through which good environmental governance emerges as a framework for creating, validating or changing institutions in order to prevent, mitigate or resolve conflicts over natural resources.[x]

Understanding that the potential for conflict in our region is caused or exacerbated by environmental factors may help the ADF understand the potential for peace. This monograph applies the environmental peacebuilding lens to nascent conflicts and collective action problems facing the countries and territories of the south-west Pacific region, namely the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. It explores security challenges in the region arising from the governance of natural resources and the environment, and opportunities for environmental peacebuilding.


[i] Conroy, Pat. ‘Climate change is a national security issue’. The Interpreter, 7 August 2019.

[ii] Bergin, Anthony. ‘Defence must regard climate change as a serious security issue’. Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2 December 2016.

[iii] Bergin, 2016.

[iv] Department of Defence. 2016 Defence White Paper. Commonwealth of Australia, 2016. p. 54

[v] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Commonwealth of Australia, 2017. pp. 37–38

[vi] 2016 Defence White Paper, pp. 55–56

[vii] 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, pp. 37–38

[viii] Dresse, Anaïs, Itay Fischhendler, Jonas Østergaard Nielsen, and Dimitrios Zikos. ‘Environmental peacebuilding: Towards a theoretical framework’. Cooperation and Conflict 54, no. 1 (2019): p. 113

[ix] Dresse et al., 2019. pp. 112–113

[x] Dresse et al., 2019. p. 103

Cover of Occasional Paper #4 - Environmental Peacebuilding in the Pacific

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ISSN (Online) 2653-0406
ISSN (Print) 2653-0414

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