Armed conflict in the Pacific islands, from Atai's 1878 revolt in New Caledonia to the upsurge of violence in Solomon Islands in 1998, is often portrayed as 'ethnic tension'. But there is a need for more analysis based on political ecology, especially the link between climate change, conflict and insecurity.

Modern researchers have documented the major drought in 1877-78 caused by the El Niño phenomenon. The damage to irrigation and cultivation contributed to 20 million deaths around the world, from the Great Famine in India to agricultural crises in Latin America. The Kanak revolt against French settlers led by Chief Atai in 1878 was driven by the growing loss of land and impact on livelihoods. The international El Nino drought had major adverse impacts across Australia and parts of Melanesia in 1877. Kanak clans were pushed onto reserves in the narrow valleys of the central mountains, where yam and taro gardens were harder to maintain. Some clans had sporadically resisted the theft of their land, but these new tensions contributed to a wider Kanak uprising in 1878, with more than 1400 deaths.

In modern times, much analysis of crisis in Solomon Islands between 1998-2003 foregrounds 'ethnic tensions' and a failure of governance in Honiara. But this downplays the impact of wider economic and environmental drivers, which are often beyond the control of policy makers.

There is a need for greater research to analyse the tipping points that transform long-standing social grievances into armed conflict. For example, what impact did the 1998 El Nino drought have on decisions made by Guadalcanal landowners to seize land used by Malaitan settlers? The Asian Development Bank has estimated that the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis led to a 20% drop in Solomon Islands GDP in one year. What impact did the loss of logging revenues have in triggering the crisis, as Malaysian corporations reduced investment in Solomons forestry to weather the Asian crisis?

Climate change is not the sole determinant of instability, but can be a multiplying factor where other vulnerabilities to conflict are present. These questions suggest we need to integrate political ecology into our analysis of Pacific conflict, which is often driven by a focus on governance or ethnicity.

Studies by international researchers argue that ignoring the reliance of developing economies on natural resources (such as land, food, water and energy) underestimates their exposure to systemic risks. Beyond this, a recent study on the Arab Spring stresses the interplay of social, economic and environmental factors, arguing 'conditions of instability or root causes do not stand alone but can interact with each other.'

In recent years, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and other think tanks have begun looking at the impact of climate change on deployments by the Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police. However a study in the Australian Defence Force Journal argues: 'The ADF is not paying sufficient attention to understanding the risks and opportunities presented by climate change.'

Photo by Flickr user NASA.