The Drowning Pacific

The New York Times prophetically displayed the Statue of Liberty submerged under water on its front page last week as some New Yorkers were still mopping up Sandy’s residue from their kitchen floors whilst others were packing the remnants of their broken homes into cardboard boxes.

The reality faced by many small island nation states attending the United Nations Climate Talks is the possibility of having to pack up their entire country and relocate to escape rising tides and increasingly unpredictable, extreme weather events. Imagine the number of cardboard boxes you would need to disassemble and preserve all the knowledge in a country’s libraries, and to pack up and conserve all of the art in its museums. Imagine all the boxes you would need to dismantle every small business and rescue the family heirlooms and personal effects of every family in your country.

That’s exactly the challenge that the Government of Kiribati have been considering as a last resort option if the impacts of climate change render Kiribati uninhabitable. Ben Namakin is from the small Pacific Island Kiribati that hovers only 2-3 meters above sea level. He is attending COP18 as part of the voice of the small island nations calling for stronger action on climate change.

The Pacific is notorious for its dynamic climate where “extreme events and variability are ubiquitous”.  The Pacific Environment and Climate Change Outlook report launched at COP18 identifies climate change as an exacerbating factor that is likely to lead to more frequent and intense extreme weather events. The report looks at the magnitude, frequency and impact of natural disasters tracking back as far as the 1970s; and concludes that all disasters have consistently increased in severity. At COP18, small island nation states have two big asks. The first is for developed countries to increase their ambition and set stronger emission reduction targets in the hope of keeping global warming within 2 degrees. The second is for assistance mitigating and adapting to the very real impacts of climate change.

“For us, coming from the Pacific islands and living with the real impacts of climate change in terms of coastal erosion and water problems, drought and considering what will happen to the people who lose their lands…” are the issues that Ben looks to the UNFCCC process to address by providing mechanisms that will assist vulnerable countries in coping with the problems they face today, and hopefully prevent the escalation of those problems tomorrow.

Western, developed countries often talk of the climate crisis as a phenomenon of the future (presumably a future where climate change conveniently only becomes a pressing, present issue after coal and oil either run out or cease to be so profitable). The reality is different for many vulnerable countries around the world. Ben explains, “I think we are getting to the point where we’re seeing some of the impacts that are unavoidable – I mean, we’re talking about people that have lost their lands already”

Ben tells the story of a friend of his who lost his home and his land.

He said, “I can talk about a friend of mine. I wish I could picture it, the place he lived. They used to live in this community by a very beautiful ocean side of Kiribati – you know in Kiribati we have the lagoon side and the ocean side where the waves break. They used to live on the ocean side and they had this very beautiful piece of land. They had a bond between them with the mainland. So, the story that I learned was about how he lived there with his sisters and brothers, how he used to cross that bond to the other side of the land just to collect water and bring it to the home.

Now, when you come to this place? No more. No more bond and no more piece of land. It’s all ocean now. So what happened to him and his family? He had to move to the other side. He had to move further inland.

If you think of the place that, I mean, an area where it was once an island and now you look at it and it is completely an ocean. It’s totally gone. And if you think of this guy – it doesn’t work – he’s only a fisherman. He already had a place, he already had a house and then because of sea level rise it got destroyed, they had to start from scratch again. But then the question that we have to our leaders at COP is what do you do about these people? You know? Who pays for this? Who, who covers the expenses for this guy to rebuild his home?

…That piece of land is part of his identity which is gone already. What can be done about that? It’s a very complicated question.”

It’s a very complicated question that both developed and developing countries are grappling with at COP18. The issue of finance is a significant point of tension in these negotiations as the state of the Green Climate Fund remains couched in uncertainty. As the Fast Start funding comes to a close at the end of 2012; developing countries are demanding details of how and when the Green Climate Fund is going to transition from an empty bank account full of promises to an operational financing mechanism that can be used for adaptation and mitigation. Currently, developed countries including the UK, Australia, Germany and the US have all made assurances that the money exists and has been budgeted for but are reluctant to put money on the table until the recipient countries are “climate finance ready”. It is unclear whether this conditionality refers only to the finalisation of the mechanism of the fund itself, or whether it will manifest as a set of conditions surrounding the actual implementation of the funding on the ground. If it is the latter, issues around self-determination under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People will undoubtedly arise.

Ben said that first “I look up to my big brothers in Australia. They always hold themselves as supporters of Pacific Islands countries as well as New Zealand.” Failing that, he lists a series of other developed countries that may be willing to finance mitigation and adaptation projects having contributed far more to the issue of climate change than the small island of Kiribati.

If the talks in Doha fail to produce the forward momentum needed to carry the negotiations to binding treaty in 2015, and if the governments of the world fail to collectively keep temperature increases within a safe threshold, the island of Kiribati has a last resort plan – Fiji.

The Kiribati Government has been negotiating with Fiji to buy 2000 hectares of land to house its population if rising sea levels make Kiribati’s low lying atolls uninhabitable. The social and political challenges in resettling an entire population of people with their own culture and way of life in another country are enormous.

“The reason why they chose Fiji is because if we had to be moved to Australia it’s not easy. It’s only if I’m educated and I can work in the office that I can say no problem I can go to Australia. But the majority of the population of Kiribati just survive over the resources that we have in terms of fish and land resources. So if we had to be moved to Sydney or the middle of the desert in Australia I don’t think we can do fishing there. I don’t think we can grow our crops that we eat back home. I don’t think we can find the kind of tree that we use to make our traditional dancing clothes. So I think when they chose to go to Fiji, and I think Fiji is also kind enough to their neighbouring Pacific Island countries they offer a land”.

But the complications are not just on the end of the receiving nation. As Indigenous people whose identity is inextricable from the land and the ocean that they live on, use and care for; who do they become if they are forced to walk away?

“If we move to Fiji how are we going to be able to carry our flag as the Kiribati people? What will happen to our ocean which is the largest ocean in the world? Are we still going to be able to claim that as our ocean?

“I’ve asked some of the elders in Kiribati and they say, I’d rather sink with the island.”

This anguish at cultural destruction is probably the loudest unspoken trauma at the Climate Talks. The voices of Indigenous people are consistently underrepresented in the formal negotiations; but when they are heard the same despair over the impossible choice between survival and identity is repeated time and time again.

Maria Timon, also from Kiribati, struggled through tears when addressing delegates, negotiators and civil society at COP18. She explained why for Kiribati climate change was not just an item to tick off on the national agenda; but rather a matter of survival.

“The coconut trees are dying and breadfruit trees are dying. Our people are struggling to survive. But they sweat, they try harder, they work harder. They are very resilient and will even try harder to survive and stay in their home-land.

“For some developed nations climate change is about the rising costs of electricity. Climate change for them is putting price on carbon emission, lack of jobs, life will become more expensive and it’s about the economy. For the people of Kiribati, climate change is about human rights, right to our land and losing our land, losing our culture, losing a sense of belonging and losing our identity.”

Maria is right. For many of us, climate change is about carbon emissions and coal reserves; it is about energy consumption, productivity and the economy. Climate change is very real threat to how and on what scale we develop and expand our industries, and how we plan our cities and infrastructure into the future.  For the Indigenous people of low-lying nation states climate change affects their entire way of life. It’s about cultural destruction and the annihilation of their collective identity.

At the end of the day the question has to be: if our Governments lack the courage, the conviction or the mandate to take strong action on climate change; they must not only be comfortable with their role in destroying thousands of years of culture, but they also must be willing to work out where these people go, how they get there and who pays.

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