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The Ocean Connects Us - a climate action plea from the Pacific

As I prepare to leave the Pacific Islands, the U.N. Climate Change Conference opens in Paris.

As Kiribati's President, Anote Tong, urged world leaders to “stand united”, the camera panned the near empty room. These leaders had gathered in Paris to discuss climate change. Yet few of the large nations, including the host, France, had bothered to turn up to Tong’s address. As the leader of a nation whose citizens are amongst the world’s first climate change refugees, the snub set the tone of a talk-fest without substance.

A Problem with the Convention

Less than 2 months earlier, in September 2015, the New Zealand government deported Kiribati national, Ioane Teitiota and his family, including his New Zealand born children. Teitiota’s claim for refugee status based climate change had been rejected. The NZ supreme court ruled that while Kiribati faced “challenges” the U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees, created in 1951, did not recognise victims of climate change.

However, the year before, a Tuvaluan family was granted legal residency in New Zealand. Their lawyers argued, in part, that climate change made life untenable in their home country. Given the limitations of the Convention, the Tuvaluan family’s lawyers relied on other factors, such as existing family links to New Zealand, to secure their residency.

What these cases illustrate is the people on the ground, the “front line” as Tong calls them, are presently suffering the very real issues and concerns of climate change. It is not a ‘future’ or ‘predicted’ threat; it is current. People are losing their homes and livelihoods. Many, who live on atoll-islands only a few metres above sea-level, have nowhere to go. It also illustrates the world’s lack of ability to deal with it.

The Islands on the Frontline

Low lying atoll-islands have been the first to feel the long-term effects of climate change. The seawater is rising and inundating areas that sit only a few metres above sea level. The number and severity of storms is increasing and, as storm surges erode beaches, they displace the land and disperse it to other areas changing or reducing the island's size. These storm surges also contaminate water supplies and crops that are, at the same time, being affected from below by increasing salinity in the soil. Root crops, such as taro and cassava, that have been staples in island living and the Islanders main source of carbohydrates, are unable to grow. Fresh rainwater supplies are being threatened by extended dry periods and droughts. The warming sea temperatures have created algae breakouts covering coral and reducing sea life that these fishing communities rely on.

It is not ‘likely’ that populations in low-lying islands will have to migrate; migration is already underway. On Tuvalu’s Carteret island hundreds have had to relocate to the larger island of Bougainville. Their feet may be dry but on small islands with few resources, overpopulation is as big a risk as climate change. To combat both issues, Kiribati has purchased island land in Fiji. At the 2015 Paris talks, Kiribati received welcome confirmation the Fijian government will accept their climate change migrants. Still, it’s a financial challenge for these small island nations with minute economies and largely subsistence lifestyles.

The ocean connects us all, yet we are all of different cultures, language groups and traditions. Many island nations are small, remote and relatively untouched by modernisation. They have, until now, retained strong cultural links to their ancestors. Forced migration away from homelands and communities makes it difficult to maintain these cultural connections and sense of identity. Culturally, socially and physically, islanders lives are under threat due to inaction by world leaders who live on higher ground. Tong does not exaggerate when he states:

We have often described ourselves as the frontline country to the problem of climate change. Because we will be the first ones to fall. If nothing is done, we will no longer exist [Anote Tong, former Prime Minister Kiribati]

Find Out More

PACIFIC ORGs FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE: For something other than the usual Oxfam/Greenpeace check out: 350 Pacific it's a grassroots group of "climate warriors" from the pacific nations.

watch Atone Tong's COP21 Speech.

HASHTAGS TO FOLLOW: #StandUpForThe Pacific



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