Pacific islands make last-ditch plea to world before Paris climate change talks
Amid the rustling palm trees, blissed newlyweds and colourful attire of a tropical island resort, Pacific leaders have been getting blunt with wealthy nations about the unfolding calamity of climate change that is gradually gnawing away their remote idylls.
At a summit in Fiji last week, the last major gathering of Pacific island nations before crunch UN climate talks in Paris next month, islanders thrashed out their collective plea to the world to help address the health impacts of climate change, particularly upon women, infants and adolescents.
Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Fiji’s foreign minister, said the country was dealing with the re-emergence of climate-influenced diseases such as typhoid, dengue fever, leptospirosis and diarrhoeal illnesses. Last year, a dengue outbreak in Fiji infected 20,000 people.
But the meeting also showed that Fiji, for one, is not pulling any more punches with large, industrialised nations it sees as culpable for climate change.
“We in the Pacific are innocent bystanders in the greatest act of folly of any age,” said Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama.
“Unless the world acts decisively in the coming weeks to begin addressing the greatest challenge of our age, then the Pacific, as we know it, is doomed.
“The industrialised nations putting the welfare of the entire planet at risk so that their economic growth is assured and their citizens can continue to enjoy lives of comparative ease. All at the expense of those of us in low-lying areas of the Pacific and the rest of the world.”
Bainimarama added that he has yet to see the “necessary political will” amongst wealthy nations to head off the worst impacts of climate change at the Paris talks.
These gloomy warnings are becoming grimly regular fodder for Pacific islanders to digest and, increasingly, experience first-hand.
“It’s an everyday issue here,” said Dr Karen Allen, Unicef’s representative in 14 Pacific nations. “Children here in the Pacific talk about climate change like children elsewhere talk about school or TV. It’s so routine.”
Media coverage of climate change in Fiji doesn’t have the luxury of wallowing in the sort of cosseted denialism seen in the US, Britain or Australia.
The lead story in the Fiji Times one day last week featured the tale of a seven-year-old child who drowned in an unprecedented high tide in the Namena district. A new FIJI$670,000 ($436,000) sea wall has been approved but the area’s commissioner, Meleti Bainimarama, conceded: “What we are doing is remedial action. I think the best thing to do is relocate the village, but it will come at a cost.”
The other front-page tale featured a man in the same village complaining how his house is regularly swamped by seawater that once lapped 20 metres from his front door. While wealthy nations mull over climate projections and agonise over potential dips in GDP, the stereotypically ebullient Pacific islanders aim to bring some steely reality to Paris.
“I won’t be going to Paris wearing the usual friendly, compliant Pacific smile,” warned Bainimarama. “In fact, I won’t be going to Paris in a Pacific frame of mind at all. I fear that our interests are about to be sacrificed.”
Previous UN climate change forums, where dreary jargon often pours treacle over any sense of urgency, have been enlivened by entreaties from Pacific island leaders. But Paris will see an escalation. Pacific islanders will be turning up in numbers – almost all leaders are expected to attend, unlike in Copenhagen in 2009 – and with a string of demands.
The latest, the Suva Declaration, calls for an end to new coalmines and a more ambitious limit to global warming. The language has sharpened beyond Fiji – Kiribati president Anote Tong recently called Australia, previously venerated as a benevolent protector in the Pacific, “selfish” for its continued enthusiasm for burning vast amounts of fossil fuels.
The cause for concern is clear – Nasa recently reported the world’s sea level has risen nearly 8cm since 1992, with the Pacific experiencing a more rapid increase than other oceans.
A rise of around a metre by the end of the century now looks likely. For low-lying islands in the Pacific, this means coastal erosion, saltwater seeping into precious rainwater catchments and ruined crops.
Meanwhile, rising temperatures will heighten the risk of diseases, including those carried by mosquitos. Cyclones are expected to become more severe. The World Health Organisation estimates climate change will cause around 250,000 deaths globally between 2030 and 2050.
At the Fiji summit, delegates wearing Sulu va Taga, a type of traditional kilt, and floral shirts spell out the problems and what must be done. Jarringly, the gathering is being held at a luxury resort on Denarau island, a manmade construction featuring manicured lawns, fountains and an 18-hole golf course, created through seabed dredging and reshaping of the coastline.
But the Pacific islands mean business. A lack of regional leadership from Australia – where senior government ministers apparently consider seawater inundation hilarious – is forcing Pacific islanders to set aside their reputation for gentle amiability in order to make themselves heard internationally.
“We don’t want to change the way we are but we need to change our approach so that when we say enough is enough, we are heard,” said Satini Tulaga Manuella, health minister of Tuvalu, which is comprised of nine scattered islands, none of which peak higher than 4.5m above sea level.
In March, Tuvalu was pummelled by Cyclone Pam, which washed huge waves over the atolls and ripped apart buildings with 350kmph winds. The dead were upturned from their resting place in cemeteries, crops were ruined, islands reshaped. Tuvalu, the fourth-smallest nation in the world at just 26 sqkm, caught a glimpse of what may cause its demise. But the government is determined the population will not migrate.
“People are worried but they want to stay, our priority is to save our country,” Manuella said. “We say if you save Tuvalu you save the world, because if you bring down emissions enough to save us, the rest of the world will be OK.
“Science is telling politicians in other countries what is happening. So why aren’t they listening? They have to look after their own people but they also have an obligation to the world. Imagine if a whole race, Tuvaluans, we have our own culture, our own ways, is made extinct overnight because we are hit by a cyclone.”
There’s recognition that the smaller of the Pacific islands face the brunt of climate change, even among those in Fiji who have had to move due to its impact.
In January last year, the Fijian village of Vunidogoloa had to relocate several kilometres inland because of the merciless advance of the sea. Saline intrusion was causing crops such as barley and cabbage to fail. The leaves on the trees were turning yellow from the salt. Children were no longer left to play unsupervised after a king tide washed away a young boy.
“We were most vulnerable at night because we didn’t know what was happening with the sea,” said Sailosi Ramatu, leader of the village. “Now people are happy, they can sleep at night. We have land that is higher up in Fiji but other countries don’t have that.”
The unfairness of islanders suffering the consequences of greenhouse gases they mostly didn’t emit is mirrored by the raw deal suffered by the women who form the cornerstone of family life in the Pacific.
The Fiji summit, hosted by the government and the UNFPA, focused on how to deal with the health and gender equity problems thrown up by climate change.
According to figures cited to delegates by Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan, ambassador for the Every Woman Every Child program, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster than men.
“Cooking food, taking care of children, fetching water, taking care of livestock – climate change disrupts every element of a woman’s life,” said Zeid, who is the latest royal to lend stardust to the Pacific islands’ cause after Prince Albert of Monaco provided his backing, reportedly sinking a few cans of XXXX with aid workers at a recent call to arms in Kiribati.
“When climate impacts are rapid, the consequences for women and children are also severe,” said Zeid. “The greater the gender inequality, the greater the difference.”
As women in developing countries do the bulk of caring for children and elderly relatives, they are less likely to escape floods and cyclones. This was demonstrated by 2008’s cyclone Nargis in India, where most of the fatalities were women who held onto children while the men clung to coconut trees.
In the Pacific, there are a myriad of problems to work through – many health clinics are at risk from inundation and are inaccessible to those in remote areas. Delivery of maternal and reproductive health is patchy and the risk of sexual assault and abuse is heightened following disaster.
“In the Pacific, men surround their thatched homes and hold the poles together to keep their women and children safe inside during a cyclone,” said Unicef’s Allen. “The Pacific has the most incredible strong community spirit of anywhere in the world I’ve been.
“That makes it all the harder to face the reality of abuse. Because when your whole culture is built around how much you love and care for each other, it may be difficult to face the fact abuse is increasing.”
These challenges require money and Pacific islands are eying the $100bn in climate finance that has been repeatedly promised by wealthy nations. The Paris talks have left open the possibility of major help for adaptation, such as sea walls, new types of crops and relocated facilities, as well as a 1.5C, rather than 2C limit on warming.
But proposals for a facility to deal with people displaced by climate change, required because they do not fall under the UN refugee convention, have been dropped, to the dismay of Kiribati, which has purchased land in Fiji and has a“migration with dignity” policy, and the Marshall Islands, where residents of the famous Bikini atoll are currently looking to relocate to the US.
It’s a mixed picture that leaves Pacific leaders far from confident that this will finally be the year where their existential crisis triggers a response.
“We will see,” said Jone Usamate, Fiji’s health minister. “The world is a system – you do something at one end of the world and it has an impact at the other end.
“So we all need to be responsible but this is not our fault. Unfortunately, we are paying the price for it.”