Climate Change’s First Refugees

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Climate Change’s First Refugees

Pacific island nations are on the frontline of climate change, yet despite being seen as the first ‘victims,’ many are re-positioning themselves to lead the world in renewable energy infrastructure, writes Ben Bohane.

Chief Bernard Tunim confronts the issue head-on: 'We didn't create global warming but we are its first victims. The industrialized world must take decisive action at the Copenhagen summit before it's too late for everyone.'

Standing in knee-deep water on Piul Island, Chief Bernard points to a decaying coconut stump nearly 200 metres offshore from the beach we are standing on.

'That used to be our shoreline only 10 or 15 years ago,' he says. 'Look how the sea is eating us away. We are only a small island, the king tides have already swamped our gardens and soon we'll have to leave. The future of my island is now only for fish, not people.'

Piul is one of 5 atolls that make up the Carteret Islands group in Papua New Guinea, where the 3,000 islanders who live on these beautiful yet vulnerable atolls are being recognised as the world's first climate change refugees.

Preparations are being made to relocate them to nearby Bougainville, a large mountainous island, over the next year or two. For them, talk about climate change and rising seas is not an abstract concept but one that's a hard reality.

Chief Bernard has no time for debates over whether the problem is man-made or not, the effect is the same for him and his people — they'll lose their homeland. Like many islanders, he worries that the debates by scientists and climate sceptics, along with government inaction, are delaying concrete action.

Chief Bernard Tunim stands in the destroyed gardens of Piul Island,
washed away by continuing king tides and sea surges.

Two or three times a year, king tides wash over the islands, destroying the gardens with their force and salinity. Root crops like taro and sweet potato, once their staple diet, can no longer be grown and the Carteret islanders are now living on fruit, fish and food aid, mainly rice, sent by the regional government. It can be a terrifying experience to be on these low-lying atolls during a storm, when wind and seas lash their vulnerable villages.

'My husband and I have had to rebuild our hut twice in the past few years because of flooding,' says one woman on Han Island. 'I woke up in the morning once with water rushing in and my pots and pans floating out to sea.'

Young people are ready to leave the atolls, once enough land and housing has been set aside for them on Bougainville. They say they have no future left here.
Yet many old people say it is too late for them to leave their homes. They are too old to start and maintain new gardens. They prefer to 'go down with the ship' they say with nervous laughter.

The kastom (traditional) life of many Pacific Islanders often revolves around the ever-present spirit world. Ancestral spirits are acknowledged and often worshipped.  Part of the trauma of islanders leaving their homes is the feeling that they'll be abandoning their ancestors, including those buried in cemeteries.

'The hardest thing will be to lose our sacred places, our tambu places,' says Chief Paul Mika from Han Island. 'We can talk to our ancestors, and they can talk to the gods to calm the weather or bring rain when we need it. We tried using magic to stop the rising seas but it seems not to have worked. The old gods can't hear us. Some elders blame sorcerers from other islands, or that canoes are travelling too much, or that the young people are misbehaving. Some say the old gods are angry that we are Christian now, so they are punishing us by flooding our islands.'

Charlie Tsiri (left) clears bush for a sweet potato garden at his new home on
Tinputz Catholic mission land. In the background are the first three houses
built for resettled Carteret islanders.

While the Catholic Church has given over some of its land for resettlement on mainland Bougainville, the autonomous government there is having trouble alienating larger tracts of land for the Carteret refugees. Pressure on land is intense throughout the region with growing populations and most good agricultural land already utilised. The Bougainville government is facing now what many other governments will soon face: how to relocate entire communities so they can be self-sufficient and live harmoniously with other communities, especially the kastom land owners.

Chief Paul looks downcast, the looming sense of loss apparent in his face.

'We will miss our island life; it is a very easygoing life here. Isolation has had its own security. Here there are no taxes, no police, no government, no mortgages.we feel safe, we feel free here. Now we know that our islands will soon be swept away by the sea and my people are frightened.'

Yet it is equally important to recognise the traditional resilience and mobility of these island communities. Throughout history, islanders have moved when various pressures afflicted them, from tribal war, to fresh water scarcity, fishing grounds, to the lure of Christian missions and urban life. Climate change presents just the latest challenge for islanders to make the best of a bad situation and adapt — as they always have.

Although island leaders remain angry at the disregard industrial nations seem to have towards vulnerable island states, they don't wish to be seen as victims or refugees yet. Many are hoping to take advantage of the situation, sensing that billion dollar funds are opening up by groups including the United Nation, Commonwealth and European Union. Funds available for climate change mitigation can be harnessed to achieve basic developmental needs and infrastructure.

As Dr Rolf Payet of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) said
recently: 'Solutions to climate change are also the solutions to global poverty.'

In fact, Pacific states are realising that they may have a distinct advantage in the re-ordering of the global economy as it moves away from a dependence on fossil fuels. Developing nations in equatorial zones have begun a concerted move towards renewable energy.

Nowhere is this more urgent than in Pacific island states for two obvious reasons: firstly, because they are beginning to pay the price of climate change and need to set an example. The second is purely economic: the exorbitant price of fuel (likely only to escalate) and the abundance of renewable energy sources already available — such as coconut oil, solar, wind, geothermal and hydro options — make the transition towards renewable energy sources for the islands a no-brainer.

Children play near newly carved canoes, made from breadfruit trees, on Piul Island.

According to most analysts, 'peak' oil is already a reality with another major oil shock and massive price spikes not far off. Meanwhile the capital costs of renewable energy equipment — particularly solar — continues on a downward trend, making it more affordable for individuals and communities alike.

Industrialised economies based on petroleum products are already feeling the pinch. They'll find it much harder to readjust to new energy sources and means of production than island states who don't have a large industrial sector, but are largely based on agriculture and tourism. As industrialised countries look increasingly to nuclear power to generate their base-load requirements, this too will prove a short-term solution since uranium is a finite source that can only supply reactors already built (not new) for another 50-60 years. They are merely putting off the inevitable need to harness renewables, and in the process exposing nations to the danger of toxic nuclear waste (which has a half-life of 40,000 years), accidents and terrorism.

Industrialised nations face nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way their energy, transport and industrial sectors are retooled to face the challenges ahead. For island states, the transition can be much smoother as they move quickly into renewable energy power generation.

Some countries are already leading the way. According to the Fiji Electricity Authority, Fiji currently has 66 per cent of its power generation coming from renewables (mainly hydro power) with a target of 90 per cent by 2015. Meanwhile, if plans by Tuvalu are implemented, it will become the world's first nation to operate on 100 percent renewable energy. And it hopes to operate on 100 percent solar power before 2020.

In November this year, the Pacific nation of Vanuatu hosted an international conference by the Climate Parliament, made up of more than 30 MPs from small island states in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, to strategise ahead of the looming Copenhagen summit.

None of the MPs were optimistic about any concrete action emerging from the summit, since the biggest polluters, such as the United States and China, have so far offered only timid targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the summit may see a lively, even fiery, confrontation between industrialized nations and those most vulnerable to rising seas.

Opening the conference, Secretary General Nick Dunlop threw down the gauntlet:
'Island nations need to be more radical in confronting industrialized countries. US senators are not worried about small island states, they're worried about fulfilling their obligations to the oil and gas lobby that funds them. This is about national survival for some island states, it is the moral equivalent of war. It's time to get radical.'