Apr 10, 2019

Cornell students study climate change impact in Tonga

A group of students from Cornell University, an Ivy League research university in Ithaca, New York, were in Nuku’alofa last week to look at the impact of climate change in Tonga as part of their Spring break workshop focusing on the Pacific.

The university’s Department of City and Regional Planning Professor Gerard Finin, said Tonga has some very low-lying areas and some real climate change challenges.

“This was really a golden opportunity to gain a broader and deeper appreciation on the ground both culturally as well as in terms of what government, NGO’s and the private sector are all doing to address the pressing climate change issue.”

Cornell University students with Professor Gerard Finin (left backrow) in Tonga. Touliki, 4 April 2019.

Scenarios

As part of their research, the students looked at various scenarios caused by climate change that might happen and already happening, such as rising sea levels, drought, and impacts on economic development.

Lukas, a second-year master’s degree student said they spoke about these scenarios and possible policy solutions that might work to solve them with various government ministries, NGOs and the private sector.

One of the scenarios is coastal erosion, occurring at a more rapid rate than it is now, with bigger king tides, continuous sea level rising, and more cyclones, and looking at where people who lose their land would go, he said.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve heard that’s kind of challenging is the [Tongan] land system.”

“One of the solutions we talked about was the possibility of a potential free association relationship with another country,” he said.

“So, I think it’s going to be tough finding creative solutions, but I think there’s going to have to be consideration of either smaller land plots or even the idea of multi-family housing, which seems to be very uncomfortable culturally.”

Droughts

Sarah, a second-year master’s degree student said they also looked at the possibility of what would happen when global temperatures continue increasing causing more frequent and intense El Nino years and more drought in those years.

“So specifically, we’re looking at the impacts of [drought on] water, food, and migration.”

She said water is very important and investment in strong water infrastructure, regardless of whether an extreme drought ever happens, is the way to go.

Food security

Food is also a concern said Gretchen, a student studying preservation planning. She said after talking to government, more attention should be on communities growing their own food.

“The government concerns seem to be more about the pricing of common foods, but not perhaps focused so much on small individual families who grow the bulk of their food and so the focus seems to be on the higher level than on community level.”

Tourism was also highlighted as a sector that can contribute to economic development. The students looked at how tourism intersects with climate change and the pros and cons of diversifying the economy, getting a new source of income, and development infrastructure.

Tourism taxes

Zeiyu, a fourth year undergraduate student, said a possibility is to have tourism tax, like what Bali and Nepal are doing.

“For example, cruise ships. They have to probably pay a certain tariff, just to enter the kingdom and that tariff could be placed into a trust fund for development.”

Professor Finin said they have been interacting with the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, and some of the policy makers and will provide a report for people to think more about, look outside the box and at the bigger long-range picture.

“That’s essentially what we’re attempting to do through this trip and through the partnerships that we’ve formed with USP and with our interactions with various ministries.”

The students will also present some of the scenarios and ideas to Tonga’s permanent mission in New York for feedback.


By Eleanor Gee for Matangi Tonga Online, 8 April 2019