Gods, Spirits and Natural Hazards: Ontologies and Epistemologies of Natural Hazards and Climate Change in Kiribati and Papua New Guinea

Guy Jackson*, Annah Piggott-McKellar

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Pacific Island countries are already experiencing severe impacts from climate change and these will likely increase in the future. In response, a plethora of climate change adaptation projects have been implemented across the region with the aim of assisting those most affected. Yet these projects have largely failed to reduce vulnerability to climate change in a meaningful way. This chapter addresses a commonly overlooked, but argued here to be crucial, reason for failure: how religion shapes local perspectives of climate change, and the lack of acknowledgement with these by external actors. We address this gap through exploring the changing ontological and epistemological understandings of climate change and hazards among two distinct cultural groups from the Pacific Islands—the Bedamuni of Western Province, Papua New Guinea and the I-Kiribati. To structure our diachronic investigation, we explore the drivers of socio-cultural change across three periods: pre-contact, colonial and missionary, and contemporary. A complex story of interaction with exogenous ideas and syncretism is portrayed within both societies. Yet today we find the Bedamuni continuing to draw heavily from traditional belief systems, especially the presence and influence of spirits, to explain hazards while simultaneously being devout Christians. Despite noting changes in weather and seasonality, Bedamuni people have had little exposure to global climate change discourses. Conversely, the I-Kiribati, as the occupants of one of the countries most exposed to climate change, have had relatively high exposure to scientific climate change discourses. Notwithstanding this, I-Kiribati mostly draw from Christian beliefs to explain natural phenomena while maintaining traditional beliefs in gods, spirits and magic. Like others in the Pacific, these cultures have unique histories, ontologies and epistemologies so, for climate change adaptation to be successful in the region, governments, agencies, and NGOs must acknowledge that no two places are alike and that understanding recipients’ ontological worldviews and accommodating these into adaptation strategies is an essential starting point for the development of effective future strategies.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBeyond Belief
Subtitle of host publicationOpportunities for faith-engaged approaches to climate-change adaptation in the Pacific Islands
EditorsJohannes M. Lutz, Patrick D. Nunn
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9783030676025
ISBN (Print)9783030676018, 9783030676049
Publication statusPublished - 4 Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameClimate Change Management
ISSN (Print)1610-2002
ISSN (Electronic)1610-2010

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