PI-CASC and DOD grow deeper engagement to benefit Pacific Island Nations

In the past two weeks, the Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center (PI-CASC) was invited to present on climate change dynamics across the Pacific Islands at two Department of Defense engagements.

In the first week of June, Heather Kerkering, PI-CASC Assistant Regional Administrator, and Elliott Parsons, Ph.D., Pacific Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change Management Network Specialist were invited by the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies to present in the Crisis Management Track (Concentration) for the Comprehensive Crisis Management Course CSC 24_2. During the course, they engaged with leadership from 35 nations across INDOPACOMʻs region, including nations in the Pacific Islands and Asia. Their joint presentation provided welcome information on how PI-CASC is a regional asset that is available for further engagement in climate change adaptation science. While PI-CASC cannot directly fund nations outside of the U.S., we can engage and share knowledge with other nations to build a stronger climate adaptation response across the region.

Their presentation covered climate change impacts, including addressing climate change as an amplifier of other challenges, including biosecurity and invasive species. “Invasive species are not usually thought of as a natural disaster, but the costs of their impacts have grown substantially over the last few decades and now surpass the costs of all other natural hazards worldwide except storms,” said Dr. Parsons. “It was great to be able to highlight invasive species prevention and control as a critical climate adaptation strategy with leaders from across the region.”

Mari-Vaughn Johnson speaks in front of an audience at PICARD.
Mari-Vaughn Johnson, Ph.D., speaks at PICARD about the current state of climate science in the Pacific.

Last week, Mari-Vaughn Johnson, Ph.D., PI-CASC Regional Administrator, gave an invited presentation at the Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Research and Development Symposium on the current state of climate science in the Pacific.

The symposium, designed to give a voice to Pacific Islanders living through climate change, was hosted by the Kwajalein Atoll Sustainability Laboratory (KASL), a Marshallese non-governmental non-profit focused on climate adaptation. The event focused on the impacts of climate on the Marshall Islands and showcased ongoing efforts to address and or adapt to them.

The symposium was attended by His Excellency Charles Paul, the Marshallese Ambassador to the U.S., U.N. Climate Envoy Kathy Jetnil-Kijner, Honorable Kitlang Kabua, Senator of Kwajalein Atoll, RMI, representatives from several Pacific nations, U.S. Congressman Ed Case, Pentagon political appointees, U.S. researchers, Consul-General, and various Hawaiʻi Island county government officials, all committed to creating sustainable futures in the Pacific.

Dr. Johnson’s presentation began by providing a background on how the USGS and PI-CASC engage with communities and local leaders in the Pacific to identify challenges where science can help them make more informed decisions. In keeping with the messaging presented across the entire conference, she reaffirmed that PI-CASC’s goal is to move away from the top-down approach and towards a form of co-production, where we develop relationships with each other, listen, adapt, and move forward together.

She challenged the audience’s traditional perceptions of the term ‘science’ to include diverse knowledge systems. She pointed to thousands of years of collective knowledge held by Pacific Island communities on how climate impacts island resources, ecosystems, and species. She noted that only through partnerships that bring all of our collective strengths to bear on the problems we face will we have any chance of charting a future that addresses the concerns of our Pacific Island nations.

The presentation also walked through some of the realities of climate change, such as water security, storm intensity, invasive species, and wildfires. One climate event that is increasingly affecting the Marshall Islands is overwash events. Dr. Johnson described the most recent occurrence. In January 2024, a series of waves washed over Roi-Namur, an island on Kwajalein Atoll, which caused substantial flooding, damaging infrastructure, and contaminating the fresh groundwater aquifer.

Having hard conversations about natural disasters and the realities of a changing climate while uncomfortable will allow better forecasting to reduce short-term risks and develop adaptation plans to reduce impacts and increase resiliency.

Overall, the theme of her presentation was “connection” – the connection between people, communities, and climate. She concluded by saying, “We each have personal identities, but we are also all community members. We do not exist as cut-outs. We are all in a place. We all have a relationship with place. Our community is not limited to the humans we interact with; it is defined by our place and the organisms that we share life with. So, I encourage you to be vulnerable and open and humble in building your relationships and realizing your connections. This is how we will build the knowledge bases to address climate change adaptation.”