Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: March 15th, 2021

Article discussed: Farbotko, C., & McMichael, C. (2019). Voluntary immobility and existential security in a changing climate in the Pacific. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 60(2), 148-162.

Lucas Watt

There are typically three strategies to deal with sea level rise in the Pacific; protect (such as building sea walls to prevent flooding), accommodate (actions that lessen sensitivity and exposure to sea level rise), and retreat (relocate to other less threatened areas). For highly threatened areas the latter of these is considered the only option for Pacific governments and international institutions/commentators. Farbotko and McMichael (2019) explore the emergence of a counter approach by residents of these of climate threatened areas, to remain. Its important to note that this remain approach has been articulated by a small portion of residents in climate change affected areas, and the extent and commitment to this strategy is unknown. Additionally, no fatalities have been recorded to the authors’ knowledge.

Regardless of representativeness, or the presence of a particular instance, the articulation of this remain strategy alone does reveal distinct differences between foreign and local oceanic rationales concerning mobility in the context of encroaching sea level rise. For governmental institutions, the retreat strategy is the unquestioned rational and even “responsible” approach, as to avoid the risk of injury or death. Furthermore, this retreat should occur in a short instance of time once this risk has been identified as being high enough to warrant a relocation. As Farbotko, and McMichael (2019) identify, even though Oceanic people have a history of high mobility that continues in many forms to this day; there is an enduring dialectical relationship between mobility and emplacement that is discounted by climate change strategists. Islands of residence occupy important spaces within broader geographical, relational, cosmological, and navigational horizons that cannot be severed in such callous ways. The remain strategy by certain residents of climate affected areas is (in my interpretation of this article), a way of ensuring this Oceanic importance of place isn’t lost in emerging climate change forms of mobility/displacement.

This article reminded me of an article by Tabe (2019) which the group read on July 6th 2020. Tabe argued that climate change policy makers and strategists could learn much from the relocations of Pacific peoples in the colonial era. In these relocations, colonial administrations prevented relocated populations from having any achievable relationship to places from which they were relocated from, they did not initiate prolonged genuine community dialogue to decide if/when relocation would occur, and even when prolonged dialogue occurred, there was a lack of full disclosure on what communities could expect upon relocation. It is in these colonial relocations that this dialectical place/mobility relationship is severed, and as Tabe (2019) argues this caused both emotional strife and difficulties in re-emplacement. This to me is the situation that those who choose to remain in climate affected areas are actively trying to avoid.

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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