Three Lessons from Paradise: Climate Change and Sustainability

12/23/2016 10:22 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2017
French Polynesia
Deborah Brosnan
French Polynesia

I recently cruised through French Polynesia and the Cook Islands as an invited speaker on ocean science. Sailing into turquoise lagoons, diving on vibrant reefs, and watching whales and dolphins play—here was Paradise Found. These islands are not immune to climate change effects but I found many fewer vulnerabilities.

Like most ecological scientists, I work in distressed habitats and with communities facing tough choices about their natural and economic resources. I am used to loss being the messenger for action. But here in French Polynesia, the messenger took a new and unfamiliar form—an absence of flagrant problems. Beauty and bounty in Paradise are teaching us three lessons that we must heed.

1. Natural luck matters.

On Bora Bora, I spent time with a guide who was leading me on a drift snorkel through the reef channel. As we hiked across the landscape to our entry point he described his reasons for living in the islands. Economically, including by developed-world standards, he made a good income from coral reef and nature-based tourism. His personal downtime to rejuvenate was spent surfing or offshore fishing with friends. Family time involved teaching his son to line-fish in the lagoon. This trinity of values—economics, personal well-being, and family—the very attributes that we promote as the basis of healthy individuals, communities and nations, are amply supplied here by ecosystems. There are of course other sources of social or economic benefits in the region but for many, nature is the underlying provider.

These islands are volcanic mountains surrounded by wide lagoons and fringing coral reefs. The reef-lagoon system is similar to a castle’s moat and wall, and plays a similar role defending the land from the full onslaught of the Southern Ocean. Large swells sweeping up from Antarctica continuously crash in mountains of white water on the outer fringing reefs. .

Without these fringing reefs, lagoons would vanish and shorelines erode rapidly. Corals provide a stability that has allowed communities to build houses, schools and businesses at the waters edge, and has given them easy access to the rich waters. Fertile volcanic soils, a source of high productivity, are stabilized by lush forests. The sense of abundance that permeates the islands springs from their natural legacy.

2. Don’t squander your ecological inheritance

Some places are lucky. They have the kinds of natural systems that make them less vulnerable to climate change and hazards. Others are not. The twenty-nine atolls of the Marshall Islands are tragically disappearing. Barely six-feet above sea level and most less than a mile wide, they are already feeling the sharp bite of climate change. Sea level has risen by a foot over the past 30 years, driven partly by changing trade wind patterns. The islands’ pleas for help at Paris CoP21 and since still ring in our ears. The eastern seaboard of the USA is already experiencing coastal inundations and flooding from the dual challenges of land subsidence and rising sea level.

The natural luck of places like French Polynesia can be destroyed in an instant. Around the world, poor environmental planning is rampant. There are too many ill-conceived projects, such as the ones that destroy reefs and fail to account for their roles in beach and shoreline protection. Infrastructure that lacks absorption capacity but is built on flood plains can vastly worsen the effects of rain, even causing devastating floods.

3. Understand your own environmental reality, then take action.

For three weeks, I shared the ocean’s beauty and magic with travelers who often expressed concerns for the future of our seas. At the end of the voyage, guests returned to the realities of home where they faced challenges of urbanization, environmental destruction, economic worries, socio-political upheaval; all sorts of stresses and fears, of which climate change is one more. And as stresses go, climate change is big and global, so overwhelming that people can feel compelled to ignore it, even if they’d rather not. But along with the souvenirs, selfies, and memories, the islands gave us a vital message to carry with us. By knowing our own environment we have the power to make changes that will matter. How?

  • Educate yourself to know your environmental benefits.

Know your luck and the good and bad environmental cards that you hold. Each of us lives in a community where the environment is a supplier of benefits. We may live in towns along coasts or riverbanks, in mountains, deserts or deltas. Our local environment may be more or less degraded, today. But wherever we live the environment has historically provided a set of key functions and services that drew people to settle there in the first place. It may have been flood and storm surge protection, fresh water, slope stabilization, or reliable fisheries. As individuals, businesses, and government, we must educate ourselves to identify and understand those past and present benefits, how they work, and their value.

  • Make decisions and promote actions that sustain those benefits.

In our homes and workplaces, from condos to country clubs, actions are planned and taken every day that can either help or harm our natural legacy. As individuals we participate in, and often make those choices. Chose wisely going forward. Engineers, developers and those seeking to put infrastructure on the environment, align with nature to maintain or increase ecosystem benefits. This will return financial rewards. Governments, with citizen input, promote policies and design public works that leverage your natural benefits.

Global challenges like climate change are overwhelming. We can’t solve the world’s problems alone, but we can make an important difference where we live. A trip to paradise teaches us why we should.

*I was fortunate to explore the Islands as invited expert on board MV Paul Gauguin. Views expressed are my own.

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