A short item in today’s Herald reports the visit to New Zealand under Oxfam’s auspices of Pelenise Alofe Pilitati. I followed up with a call to Oxfam who provided helpful extra material about their visitor. As Chairperson of the Church Education Director’s Association in Kiribati she is acutely aware of the impact climate change is having on the future prospects and outlook of young people. “The future of Kiribati is in our hands – we work very hard each year to support and help students to be successful. We want our children to love their country and love to serve their people. But what is the future of our children when our country is being threatened by global warming?”
As Manager of the Kauaoki Foundation Enterprise, which specialises in Health Food and promoting health to the community, Pelenise does health promotion and cooking demonstrations for the public every week – in the public square, at hospitals, community maneabas and associations. She sees this as an important part of adapting to climate change as diets change because of salination of gardens.
The 3News Sunrise programme ran an interview with her a few days ago in which the vigour and clarity of her message and personality were very apparent. I offer a few rough transcript extracts here:
“Every high tide you will see water coming seeping under the house, like for my house, and collecting in my front yard.”
“My people are adjusting. Every day they know that something is not right. The water is rising. Temperatures very hot.”
“My government knows this is a bigger problem. And we say to our people this is not your problem alone. It is a global problem.”
”It’s not too late. It”s not too late. As long as people are listening to me right now and your government of New Zealand and Australia and everyone around the world who is causing the problem right now – if they act – and we’ve been asking them please cut the carbon emissions by 40 to 50%. If they do that right now then we have time to adjust.”
Prompted by a question about the difficulty for people here to take climate change seriously because it seems to be happening so slowly:
They think it’s abstract. They do not understand that the crisis is here, at my doorstep, in my home. They think it is just talk.
Twenty coconut trees in her yard have become only two. “The trees are being killed from the top and the bottom. It is too hot at the top, and their roots are in salinated soil at the bottom.”
Are people listening, do you think?
“In New Zealand and Australia? I think they’re waking up. But I think information is too slow getting to them. Everyone is comfortable here, enjoying their luxury and the pleasure of this place.”
As for Pacific Islanders living in New Zealand:
“They do not know. Maybe tomorrow they’ll wake up and their islands are gone. I am here not just to protect my land but to protect all of the whole Pacific”
Do you have a chance?
“Yes we have a chance. I’m not giving up.”
To Pacific people here in NZ:
“Get up and do something. [Tell] your Prime Minister that your home is dying and it’s disappearing. Get up and do something. It’s not too late. We can do something.”
Pelenise Pilitati doesn’t present as a meek suppliant. There is a tone of justifiable demand in her presentation. Nevertheless it is impossible to not feel the pathos in the human situation she is describing and even in her energetic refusal to bow to what increasingly looks like the inevitable. There is little indication that Pacific voices will play any serious part in New Zealand or anyone else’s calculations. John Key did say that the threat to those countries was why New Zealand was taking climate change seriously, but one suspects that was one of his less considered remarks since there’s little sign that we are taking it at all seriously. Oxfam NZ Director Barry Coates’ statement from the Cairns summit seems a better guide:
“The Pacific’s increasingly desperate calls for Australia and New Zealand to play their part in avoiding devastating consequences for the Pacific islands has been ignored. It is as if the lives of the Pacific’s people are expendable.
“The voices of the Pacific are being ignored. It is the voices of the heavy polluters that seem to be winning in New Zealand’s climate change policies.”
Are we starting to wake up in New Zealand and Australia as Pilitati generously surmises? Someone was asleep when they placed near the top of the website page reporting her visit, a link to an ignorant column by Jim Hopkins in Friday’s Herald pouring smart alec scorn on Keisha Castle-Hughes and Lucy Lawless and the idea that CO2 is anything other than beneficial to the world. At least I hope they were asleep. It would be appallingly insensitive if it were done deliberately.