Pacific Islanders struggle against climate change

July 26, 2009

For Pacific Islanders, climate change is not a threat looming somewhere in the future. Rising sea levels and unpredictable weather are having devastating effects right now. Climate change has already forced some communities to leave their traditional homes.

Green Left Weekly's Simon Butler spoke to two climate activists from the Pacific about their campaign for immediate cuts to greenhouse emissions globally.

Pelenise Alofa Pilitati is the chairperson of the Church Education Director's Association in Kiribati. Reverend Tafue Lusama is the chairperson of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network.

The two are currently part of an Australian speaking tour co-sponsored by Greenpeace and Oxfam. For details of the tour visit the Greenpeace website


What are you hoping to achieve while you're here?

Pelenise Alofa Pilitati: I'm trying to get Australians to support the Pacific Islands and the signing of the agreement in Copenhagen, getting the governments of Australia and New Zealand to sign an agreement that would protect the Pacific Islands.

What are some of the impacts of climate change that are happening now?

Reverend Tafue Lusama: Climate change impacts on life in our countries from every aspect. It challenges our livelihoods. It challenges our sustenance. It challenges our future.

Our islands are very low and when the sea level rises it does not just come above the land. It also comes on top of the land — right in the middle of the island.

That means our traditional way of planting food, where we dig down to the underground water table and plant, can no longer be done because the underground water has been salinated by the seawater.

On all islands?

TL: Yes, on all islands. Not only that, but, because of the warming of the globe, the corals are dying. They are bleached. And if corals die it does not only affect our supply of fish — because fish either die out or move further away in the ocean — it means going after the fish has become an expensive exercise.

And when we come together as a community to have feasting, you are supposed to have a fish on the plate. So climate change is also challenging our culture.

Also, the patterns of the weather have changed a lot. Our people depend on their traditional knowledge of the weather to plant and to fish. Now, if the weather pattern is unpredictable so will be the livelihoods of the people.

The coast has been eroded so land is being lost and people are being forced inland to other areas. So overcrowding has become a problem.

From the health perspective, [climate change] is also a challenge. For example, dengue fever has been under control for many years. Recently in Tulavu dengue fever has revived itself, stronger than before.

How quickly have the changes happened?

TL: It started way back, at least 30 years ago. But then it was more recently that we could link what was happening with the science of climate change.

If Tulavu goes down today, then [other countries] will go down tomorrow. Simply meaning … if Tuvalu is the beginning of the problem, then it should be the beginning of the solution.

If we ignore it, by the time we wake up and realise we should do something it will be too late. Because we have emitted so much carbon dioxide and poisonous gas and the pace of climate change will be so fast that it will be impossible to stop it and achieve stability.

Recently, the Tulavuan government announced it will move to 100% renewable energy by 2020. Should Australia match that kind of target?

TL: Australia should take up that challenge to show good leadership. Tuvalu is just a small country. It doesn't mean anything for the problem when it makes a commitment like that.

Australia, as big and wealthy as it is, should commit to show the world that Australia is showing leadership in the Pacific and in the world in relation to the issue.

PP: Is it such a problem for Australia? Is anyone going to die if they commit themselves to the [Copenhagen] agreement?

So I think that Australia is not thinking of the long term. They are just thinking of now. When I look at the Pacific, if it's all destroyed and people are displaced, then where else will people go?

What do you want the Copenhagen conference to achieve?

PP: I want the reduction of emissions to be equal to what the scientists say. If they say 40% or 50% then yes — not more and not less.

Second, to have a good adaptation program and the funding to organise it properly.

Third, a proper plan for those who are relocated. If people have to move somewhere [because of climate change], they cannot just move people, no. We have to think of their culture, think of their identity, think of their language, think of everything that makes them a people, a community. They have to have a proper plan.

A couple of years ago, the Tulavu government asked the Australian and New Zealand governments for help with relocation. The Australian government said no, we won't help you.

TL: The Australian government has refused our plea three times. From our point of view, Tulavu's stand is summarised by what our prime minister presented at [the December 2008 UN-sponsored climate talks in] Posnan last year, when he simply stated that Tulavu will not accept defeat.

We don't look at relocation as an option right now. We'd rather fight to save our country because [relocation] involves a lot of risks.

If you got the chance to talk to PM Kevin Rudd, who claims that Australia is taking the lead on climate change, what would you tell him?

TL: I would say to him, "You are fooling the people of Australia. You are pretending to do something but you are not doing anything."

PP: The thing I would say is, "Show us. Show us that you are supporting us by taking a strong stand at Copenhagen."

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