I’d like to return briefly to the fate of Kiribati as sea levels rise, following up my recent post on the conference of the Climate Vulnerable Forum held there last week. The post made its way through Sciblogs to the NZ Herald website where a number of people offered comments. The vigour of denial is as evident as always. The sea isn’t rising, or if it is it’s rising slowly enough for coral islands to adjust. The islanders aren’t looking after their environment — they’re blasting their coral reefs and leaving themselves open to the ravages of the sea. They should use their tourist income to do some reclamation to make up for erosion. Salt contamination is due to over-extraction of fresh water by a rising population. The islanders are playing this up in order to get money.
The small Pacific Island states are doing their best to keep the developed world aware of what is happening to them and other vulnerable states under the impacts of climate change. Kiribati this week hosted the second session of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a forum initiated by the Republic of the Maldives in 2009 to bring together countries that were particularly susceptible to the adverse impacts of climate change.
Nineteen nations, both small island states and larger economies, attended this week’s Tarawa Conference and after what sounded like tough negotiation agreed on the Ambo Declaration, named after the village in Kiribati where parliament sits. It’s not a legally binding agreement, but is intended for presentation at the upcoming Cancun conference.
The text of the Declaration has not at the time of writing been published. It will appear on the climate change website of the Office of the President of Kiribati but in the meantime the news report provided there summarises it:
“The declaration covers the urgency of addressing the immediate effects of climate change, the need for fast funding to combat these concerns in vulnerable nations, and agrees upon an aim to make concrete decisions at the meeting in Mexico kicking off late this month.”
It doesn’t sound startling. Kiribati President, Anote Tong, said the meeting tried to focus on where delegates would find agreement “rather than fight and debate over our different positions”. The Maldives Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Naseem, facilitated the meeting and spoke of the need to negotiate when a clause gives even marginal reference to a sensitive issue. He instanced the sensitivity of such questions as how emissions are limited and how they are monitored without infringing a country’s sovereignty.
One has to feel for the predicament of the vulnerable states. What they most need, and must strongly call for, is a legally binding international agreement which will drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But they also need help from the countries most responsible for emissions to enable them to cope with the changes they have begun to experience and are set to get worse.
This double bind is reflected in the somewhat convoluted comments of President Tong to reporters at the conference:
Tong told reporters he was still pushing for a legally binding agreement treaty to promote long-term action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – a bid that was snubbed at last year’s summit in Mexico in favour of the Copenhagen Accord.
However, he knows this is a big call and would settle on short-term solutions and dedicated funding boosts.
“It’s unrealistic to think that we can resolve these issues in a couple of sessions; it’s going to take the next few decades,” Tong said.
“There are certain issues which must not take that long.
“The longer we wait the more costly it’s going to be.”
However there was more to the conference than the Declaration. The President said in a Radio Australia interview before the conference opened:
“I think this will be the first opportunity for the large countries to actually see first hand what it is we have to contend with. To actually experience the high tides and the very marginal rise in elevation and land when the tide is coming in at the very highest level. And so this is an experience which not many people truly understand, and hopefully this will be an opportunity for, particularly the countries which are making the largest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions to truly appreciate what it is we are talking about.”
Asked by the interviewer to enlarge on the differences which he was hoping the conference might find a way round he replied:
“Well we continue to argue, vulnerable countries, about our survival. The developing countries, the large developed countries continue to argue about economic growth, the poverty and what have you. I think we must believe that there are common grounds, we must believe that there is a way forward.”
The interviewer noted that in Kiribati people are having to move further and further inland because of the inundation of water on their produce gardens. She asked how much further inland they can keep going before there’s nowhere else for them to go. Tong replied:
“Well that’s precisely the point, there is no inland for us. But I think this is also something that we want to demonstrate, that in some parts of the island you throw a stone and you actually hit the other side of the island. So there is no inland. And these are the issues and these are things that we want people to be able to appreciate.”
The interviewer asked whether this means there’s now is a need for more talk about environmental refugees, suggesting that what he’s saying is that the people on Kiribati will have to move eventually.
“Well I always make the point that I reject the notion of environmental refugees. I think what we want to be able to be prepared for is all possible eventualities, one of which may be the need to relocate our people. And in order to relocate we must begin to address these issues now, and part of the process of addressing them is referring for that process. And so it requires a very well planned and a long-term process. If we know it’s going to happen, we have the time to plan it, then there is no reason why we should not begin planning it now.”
That’s the ultimate in adaptation. But if we won’t listen to the call for no more than a 1.5 degree global temperature rise or 350 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere justice will demand that we at least enable such relocation as proves necessary.
I found myself hesitating over reporting a further attempt on the part of Oxfam to draw attention to the increasing plight of populations in poorer countries faced with the early effects of climate change. In this case it is Oxfam New Zealand’s Wave of Change campaign, highlighting climate impacts in the Pacific region.
Why was I hesitating? Fear of overdoing a theme? Recognition that there is not absolute scientific certainty that a particular event can be attributed to climate change? Caution about compassion fatigue? Foreseeing reactions from some that this is just another begging strategy devised by the pesky poor? A general feeling of hopelessness about the likelihood of rich nations taking a sustained interest in the plight of others, even when their responsibility for that plight is established? Not wanting to be seen as a bleeding heart liberal?
All these elements, and others, were discernible when I interrogated myself. None of them justified ignoring the Oxfam news release sitting in my inbox. All the more when I read George Monbiot’s latest Guardian article. His argument is more generally political than climate change related, and I don’t propose discussing it here in those wider terms. But his conclusion was entirely relevant to this post:
“People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.”
So let me write briefly about the Wave of Change campaign. It’s timed as the Cancun conference comes into view. There appears to be some slight hope that Cancun will see advance on the transfer of finance and technology from developed countries to help developing countries adapt to climate change. Oxfam intends that New Zealand politicians and negotiators are well aware of the seriousness of the need of our Pacific Island neighbours in this respect. The declaration opening the short video on their website:
“People of the Pacific are among those to be hit first and worst by climate change.”
This isn’t just about the future danger of islands disappearing as a result of sea level rise, as Oxfam’s Coordinator Anne-Marie Mujica pointed out when launching the campaign:
“Right now people are struggling with salt poisoning their staple food crops and polluting their drinking water.”
A Pacific Conference of Churches spokesperson underlines this when he speaks on the video of the increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather patterns.
“Salt water is now seeping into the food crops and the drinking water. Tropical storms are more fierce.”
One woman puts it simply:
“Seawater is coming. Every high tide I have water in my front yard.”
The campaign seeks a fair deal. Two Pacific Islanders on the video say it:
“Our Pacific urgently requires a fair deal on climate change.”
“We need to protect our Pacific regions. We need to speak out loud and clear for a fair and ambitious deal on climate change.”
Fair deal is the right note to strike since issues of justice are clearly involved when the effects of emissions are felt by those least responsible for them. One woman speaker says:
“Climate change is not just about science; climate change is about human rights.”
These are island voices. People alarmed by what they see happening where they live and asking for attention and fair treatment. Auckland is the most appropriate city in the developed world for their voice to be raised loud and clear.
Awareness-raising events taking place around Auckland this week are detailed on this Facebook page.
One of the campaign activities suggested is writing to the NZ Prime Minister. He should be open to the plea. New Zealand has signed up to the Copenhagen Accord and consequently no doubt expects to make a proportionate contribution to the funding targets outlined in that Accord to assist developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Last word to Oxfam’s Mujica:
“New Zealand may be a small country, but we’re a big player in the international climate talks. Our negotiators lead, or are members of, important working groups. It’s time to show the government that its citizens want them to do more to protect our Pacific.”