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Global Warming Threatens Pacific Economies, Report Says

This article originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal on November 26, 2013.

Rising temperatures might sound nice for people planning a beach vacation. But for Pacific Island nations, global warming poses a big threat to their ability to capture tourist dollars, according to the Asian Development Bank.

In a report Tuesday, the Manila-based lender says sun-baked tropical nations from Samoa to the Cook Islands that rely on tourism income could become less attractive destinations as global temperatures rise.

Damage to coral reefs prized by divers and snorkelers, rapid erosion of sandy beaches and more frequent weather events like tropical storms could shave one-third off tourism revenue in the Pacific region by the end of the century, the ADB said.

That doesn't even include the effects of coastal flooding, coral bleaching, decline of fishing stocks and increased health risks, the bank said.

"The weather patterns have changed," said Christine McCann, head of sales and marketing for Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort on Vanua Levu, Fiji's second largest island.

Staff members at the picturesque resort have planted mangroves to prevent coastal erosion, replant broken coral so it can be returned eventually to the nearby reef, and avoid fishing on the reef.

The subject of global warming has sparked intense public debate in recent years, but the Pacific Island leaders have been particularly vocal due to their position at the frontline of climate change.

Recently, a man from the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati tried to claim refugee status in New Zealand, arguing that rising seawaters had made life on his island too dangerous.  His claim failed, but the future for those in Kiribati and a number of other low-lying Pacific islands remains uncertain as the islands could disappear beneath rising seas.

A United Nations report in September said air and oceans are getting warmer, ice and snow are less plentiful and sea levels are rising.

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," the report said.

According to the ADB, most countries in the Pacific will see average annual temperatures rise by 1.8 degrees Celsuis (3.24 degrees Farenheit) by 2050.

The ADB report focuses on 14 developing Pacific nations: the Cook Islands, FIji, Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The region will need US$447 million every year until 2050 to prepare for worst-case scenarios caused by climate change, the bank calculates.  Most of the money would go toward planning and making preparations such as infrastructure that can withstand strong storms and rising tides.

"If the world were to stay on the current fossil-fuel intensive growth model - the business-as-usual scenario - total climate change cost in the Pacific is estimated to reach 12.7% of annual gross domestic product equivalent by 2100," the report said.

Tourism isn't the only industry at risk.  Hotter temperatures also will impact crop production - sweet potato crops in Papua New Guinea and the Solomons could fall by 50% by 2050 - and hauls of skipjack tuna could drop by 20% over the same period, according to the ADB report.

But tourism is too important to the region to ignore: In Palau and the Cook Islands it accounts for more than hald of GDP, while it makes up more than 20% in Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu.

In Samoa, where 70% of the resorts are located along the coast, the government is preparing a report on what can be done to protect the tourism industry from the effects of climate change said Amiaifolau Afamafaga, project coordinator on climate change for Samoa's tourism authority.

"The main concerns are beach erosion, storm surges caused by sea level rises, prolonged periods without water, and the heat," Ms. Afamafaga said.