Climate refugees — the hidden cost of climate change

Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - 11:00

"If these people can spend millions and millions on sending troops to fight other countries, why can't they spend maybe a couple of billions just to save people, like ourselves; the marginalised, poorest of the poor. Why? Because we are taking the brunt, we are the victims of these green[house] gas emissions, the pollution made by industrialised countries."

These words were spoken by a Carteret Islander in an unfinished documentary, The First Wave, the evacuation of the Carteret Islands.

For the inhabitants of Pacific and Indian Ocean island nations, such as the Carteret Islands, climate change is already a devastating reality.

Contrary to the climate denials of the likes of Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, the president of Kiribati, Anote Tong has pointed out, "Some industrialised countries might be arguing that climate change would hurt their economic development. Sadly, I say no. Climate change is not an issue of economic growth. It is an issue of human survival."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fourth assessment report identifies small islands, including those in the South Pacific, as one of the key global regions to be most affected by climate change.

The IPCC report predicts an estimated 150 million environmental refugees worldwide by the middle of this century, citing coastal flooding, shoreline erosion and agricultural degradation as major factors.

The culturally diverse 7 million Pacific Islanders live in 22 nations. They only contribute 0.06% to global greenhouse gas emissions but are three times more vulnerable to climate change than countries of the global North, according to the IPCC.

Most of the nations are low-lying atolls, with limited land space, small populations and little financial resources. More than 50% of Pacific Islander people live within 1.5 kilometres of the shore.

Nick Maclellan, a freelance journalist and researcher, spoke to Green Left Weekly about how climate change amplifies the existing developmental challenges of small island states, which are already very prone to natural hazards.

"The effects from global warming and extreme weather events are already being felt, impacting on people's land, health and economy — threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and essential food production", Maclellan said.

He explained how major atolls of the island nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu have been inundated with sea water. "When people grow staple foods like taro in deepwater swamp pits, saltwater inundations obviously has a negative impact on their agricultural land", he said.

More variable rain patterns, another effect of climate change, has led to water shortages on many islands whose only water source is rainfall.

Important tourism and fishing industries are also under threat for many Pacific Island nations from changing weather patterns.

According to a report released in November by the Lowy Institute, global warming will also dramatically increase waterborne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever in south-east Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Rising tides

Official data on the numbers of refugees resulting from human induced climate change is still lacking due to the fact that "environmental refugees" are not officially recognised as refugees by the UN.

Recently elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, made international headlines on November 10 for his plan to invest revenue from tourism into a sovereignty fund to buy a new home for the nation's 300,000 inhabitants.

The stunningly beautiful Indian Ocean nation, made up of 1200 islands, is the lowest country in the world. Its highest point reaches only 2.4 metres above sea level.

The Maldives is at risk of being washed away by rising sea levels. Nasheed argued in the November 10 Guardian: "We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades."

To the east in the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea, another climate refugee tragedy is unfolding.

The first relocation of Carteret Islanders 85 kilometres across the ocean to Bougainville will take place in 2008. Their beloved island homeland is literally disappearing into the sea before their very eyes.

The late Pip Starr, a Melbourne filmmaker, documented the Carteret Islanders' predicament in his unfinished film, The First Wave, the evacuation of the Carteret Islands.

One of the islands has literally been cut in half by the rising sea and has lost most of its fertile land due to saltwater inundation.

Once self-sufficient in food, growing bananas, taro and other vegetables, the island is now dependent on food deliveries from mainland PNG.

"The people who are causing this erosion should try and look to us now on the island and try to do something to help us stay on the island because we love to live on our little island", one islander said in the film.

Brad Crouch reported on news.com.au on October 4, that the Tuvaluan prime minister, Apisai Ielemia, visited Canberra in August to "secretly" float a plan for the mass migration of the country's citizens.

Tuvalu is a micro state, made up of eight low-lying atolls and coral islands with an estimated population of just under 12,000. It is the second-lowest nation in the world after the Maldives.

Most of the tiny island nation is just one metre above the high-tide mark and could become another casualty of global warming by 2050 due to shoreline erosion and salt contamination of the soil.

Kiribati, an island nation of 33 atolls and 100,000 people, is also struggling to deal with the multifaceted effects of human-induced global warming.

Villages have already had to relocate to higher grounds, islands are shrinking, coconut palms are dying and saltbushes are taking over, replacing life-giving vegetation.

Action and advocacy

Maclellan told GLW that relocation and displacement is not uncommon for Pacific Islanders due to environmental reasons. He cited the 1985 evacuation of Marshall Islanders because of nuclear testing or relocation of people from Kiribati's Banaba island to the Fijian island of Rabi because of heavy phosphate mining.

"There is a lot of concern [among Pacific Islanders] if some of the worst case scenarios for climate impacts for extreme weather events and rising sea level rise come true, but people don't want to move because land is tied to not only economy but questions of cultural identity", Maclellan told GLW.

"Sometimes talking about climate refugees makes it sound like Pacific Islanders are sitting there waiting to suffer their fate. Actually it has been in Australia where people are just developing consciousness about the particular vulnerably of our region".

According to Maclellan it is critical to recognise Pacific Islanders are actors not just victims in this process. "In countries like Tuvalu and the Cook Islands there are climate action networks. These are networks of community, church and women's organisations, working to raise awareness about what climate change will mean for people generally", he commented.

Pacific Islander nations have been very proactive for decades on the issue of global warming. The 1989 Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise held in Male, the capital of the Maldives, paved the way for the formation of an action group, which later became the Alliance of Small Island States at the Geneva Second World Climate Conference in 1990.

The "Male declaration" from the 1989 conference was critical in bringing the environmental vulnerability of small island states into the international arena.

Caribbean, Pacific and Indian Ocean states highlighted the dire threat of global warming to their countries at a range of meetings and conferences, such as the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the 1994 Barbados conference for Small Island Developing states.

In 2002, Tomasi Puapua, governor general of Tuvalu, addressed the 57th session of the UN General Assembly and pleaded for all industrialised countries to urgently ratify and fully implement the Kyoto Protocol. He reiterated the desire of Tuvaluan people to remain permanently as a nation on their islands.

Maclellan, who worked as a journalist at the Pacific Islands Forum in 1997 in Rarotonga, told GLW that member countries — which included Australia, New Zealand and fourteen South Pacific island states —, discussed adopting a common position to take to the UN.

"The incoming Howard government blocked that consensus; refusing to support the common position calling on industrialised nations to take further action through the Kyoto Protocol. So there has been that lost decade within Australia where people have not been picking up the voices from the Pacific", Maclellan said.

Pacific governments and communities are increasingly looking at renewable technology as a solution to climate change along with the problems of rising fuel costs, Maclellan emphasised.

"The Kiribati solar electric company, with funding from Europe, is involved in a major program to provide basic solar panel technology to rural households, and for a small monthly price people can have solar generated electricity for basic lighting at nighttime."

He also explained that the Pacific Energy and Gender Network project aims to distribute solar-powered cookers, which will help reduce unsustainable practices such as the use of firewood for cooking.

Australia's responsibility

Australia needs to take a more proactive role in helping to solve the Pacific Islanders' predicament arising from climate change because it is partly responsible for the crisis.

Australia is the greatest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, constituting 0.3% of the world's population but producing about 1.4% of the world's greenhouse gases.

Australia's refugee and asylum seeker policy under the Howard government was internationally notorious for its punitive framework.

So it was not surprising that the previous Australian government refused to implement a program to grant Tuvaluan residency in Australia as environmental refugees. The current Rudd government has so far been silent on the question of supporting the relocation of Pacific Island climate refugees and giving them permanent resident status in Australia if requested.

According to Friends of the Earth, the New Zealand government has established the Pacific Access Category, an immigration program that allows a yearly intake of 75 residents each from Tuvalu and Kiribati and 250 each from Tonga and Fiji to settle if they have been displaced by climate change.

Maclellan suggests that relocation should be the last resort. He argues strongly in favour of Australia and New Zealand putting more funds into Pacific Island initiatives at the community level.

"The Rudd government promised $150 million for climate adaptation funding, but a lot of that money is going to Australian institutions, such as the Department of Climate Change, to the CSIRO and $50 million to the World Bank. That sort of money should be increasingly going to community level initiatives that are dealing with some of the concrete problems that people face to improve their livelihoods", he argued.

Maclellan related the words of a leading Tuvaluan climate activist, who said: "People say we are the first to go under the waves but we won't go under without a fight and we call on the industrialised countries to take action around their green house gas emissions, which are central part of this whole question."

This call is echoed by Tong, who told the Islands Business magazine that climate change is an international challenge and has a moral dimension to it.

"We believe we are human rights victims because not just our food and shelter but our very survival is on the line. There is a moral obligation not to neglect us. It presents challenges to the morality of the human race: Should we simply let these people drown?"

From GLW issue 777