I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post this past weekend in honor of Earth Week- I’ll repost the incredible articles written by friends and colleagues in drowning islands around the world this week as well. The full link follows the story.
Last year during a trip to the Marshall Islands, I met a man named Henry Romeu, an American coast guard who was on a mission in the Pacific Ocean. He monitored various pacific islands and their surrounding waters, monitoring fishing zone boundaries and reacting to various emergencies as they arose. As you can imagine, Mr. Romeu had interesting stories to tell, but it was one exacting comment about the power of the sea that stuck with me. With seriousness in his eyes he said “there is nothing immune to the ocean. Nothing.” These words were uttered just inches from the water’s edge, on an island in a country that hovers just above sea level. During my time there, residents recounted stories of flooding during particularly bad king tide storms where they fled to the tallest point on the island — a small bridge that takes just moments to walk across. They flock there because the Mr. Romeu was correct: nothing is immune to the ocean.
The vast majority of scientists agree that as the earth heats up, which is hastened by our consumption of fossil fuels and other human activities, warming waters and melting ice will raise sea levels and kill off protective coral reefs. The impacts of climate change are felt the world over, but some of the very least immune people on the planet are those that live in the coral atoll nations of the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives. These coral atolls lie only a few feet above the sea, rendering them acutely vulnerable to intensifying storm surges, spoiled or depleted fresh water reserves, food security stresses, ocean acidification, water-level rise, and the other disastrous impacts of climate change. Other countries around the world, including low-lying coastal or riverside communities in the Arctic, Caribbean, Pacific and in Bangladesh, face similar dire circumstances. Each of these communities face similar impossible questions: how do we cope with the intensifying impacts of flooding and erosion? Who pays for the increasing weather-related disasters? Where do we move if we are left with no choice but to leave our homes? Why does climate change deal its toughest blows to those that contribute to it the least?
The expert community has few answers for these novel questions. At a 2011 conference entitled “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate” held at Columbia Law School, researchers and academics addressed these novel issues. They discussed where islanders would move, whether or not they would lose statehood status after relocation and the political turmoil that would surely follow when these Diasporas scattered around the globe. At the end of the conference, co-sponsoring representatives from the markedly vulnerable Republic of the Marshall Islands gave a rather alarming, heartfelt and sincere speech of clarification. In essence, the speech went like this: I am sorry if you have misunderstood, but we have not given up yet. We are staying on our islands and will fight for our home until the bitter end.
We have watched in horror and offered support to those that have suffered in recent tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods. These are appropriate human responses to events that humans ostensibly have done nothing to bring about. Yet we seem to care very little for those around the globe that are threatened with what some call the “slow moving tsunami,” despite the fact that our action and inaction tragically hasten the submersion of land mass, societies and culture. I have had the incredible good fortune to walk among many of these people on their drowning islands, and I am continually struck by their lack of blame and their sense of hope. They do not point fingers at Westerners, asking why we continue emitting while we have been told that we are warming the earth and hastening sea level rise. They do not talk of relocation funds or lawsuits. Instead, they simply want to share their stories and the appreciation they have for the land they inherited. They gently remind me that this is not just an island problem, but a global issue, as nothing is immune to the ocean.
On a bright, gleaming Saturday morning walk in the small community of Rita, I met Eli and Mary Rose Silk, the Marshallese pastors of the Salvation Army Church. They were somewhat modest and soft-spoken, asking me to take pictures of the children around the church building rather than themselves. But they were generous and open in conversation- freely discussing their weather and water related experiences in the Marshall Islands and their thoughts on the future.
Pastor Silk: The weather is changing here- the tide has changed. Some places, like in Laura [this seemingly pristine, gorgeous point at the far end of Majuro], the tide now reaches the trees. The sand there washes away with the waves, and sometimes yards there flood now. When I was young, it wasn’t like that. It’s different now. The trees are flooded, and now they fall into the sea. The breadfruit are smaller now- nearly half the size they used to be. Some of the places we used to play in when we were young are gone. When we were young, there were occasional typhoons, sometimes people even died in the storms. But now, there is standing water in the streets after it rains, or when the tide swells.
I ask why now? Why the change?
Pastor Silk replies: As a pastor, I know that everything is under “him” [referring to God], and that the end is clearly coming closer, as evidenced by these increasing and intensifying weather events.
I want to delve deeper here, and ask: Do you think the end will come at a different time than, say, California?
To which Pastor Silk replies: Well, we don’t know, because it’s [climate] killed more people than in the Marshall Islands so far. Even though we live on very low land, we don’t see disasters like you have because of weather in California, like fire, earthquakes, or floods that you have elsewhere in your country.
I’m impressed and humbled by his insight here. Yes, of course we have climate-related disaster in our country, but you don’t hear us talking about with his candor very often.
I want to know more about what weather-related disaster looks like in the Marshall Islands. I ask about the King Tide season, from December to February when the seas intensify and the waves grow. Pastor Silk’s wife, Mary Rose Silk, perks up.
Mary Rose: Mothers get nervous, scared even, during this time. Our little children used to run around and play freely, but as the King Tide season comes now, with its storm surges and waves, we grab our kids and get inside. Sometimes they announce these storms on the radio now, and we’re told to evacuate our homes. It’s happened four times already this year. It never used to happen.
I ask if they believe that climate change is real-
Mary Rose, with conviction in her voice: Yes, I believe it’s happening because I’ve seen the changes.
She is emphatic and sincere. Pastor Silk seems more hesitant, like the question I’ve asked is more complicated and multi-faceted than the question I asked his wife.
Pastor Silk: [after a delay]… Yes, I believe it’s happening. But I mostly just depend on God. I try not to worry.
I probe a little on this, because it reminds me of a comment from James Bing III, a a young, thoughtful, smart Marshallese man in his 20s who I recently met with in Washington and who will appear on Drowning Islands soon. Pastor Silk happens to know James Bing III’s family, and so I mention that from James’ perspective, God may have promised that he would never flood the earth, but that he said nothing about what mankind would do. Many scientists believe that climate change is at least exacerbated by human activity, not God
Pastor Silk: Yes, God promises never to flood the earth again. Our island is low and small. But lots of the things going on in the world- we don’t see them here. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados… Why? Because he’s caring for us. But if we don’t believe in him or make him happy… that’s God’s problem and he’ll take care of it.
I ask if they think that Americans, Chinese, or Australians, for starters, should do something different about the way that we live in order to protect small islands.
Pastor Silk almost immediately responds, in a seemingly forgiving and generous way that only God can make this sort of sea-change. But Mary Rose seems troubled. She is quiet for a moment, then asks:
Mary Rose: Do you think that big places, big cities, are the ones that cause this problem?
I quickly confide that I am not a scientist, and that I am not able to crunch numbers and analyze weather patterns the way that those in meteorology and climate sciences can (and do). But, I hasten to add my parting words-
If changing the way that I live, if emitting less carbon and supporting governmental policies that encourage and enforce this sort of action MIGHT help the problem, then I will do it.
To this, they both vigorously nod.
[An important aside- Pastor Silk wants to read this blog, send and receive emails, and allow community children the use of their computer. However, their nearly archaic computer broke several months ago and they are awaiting funds to send it for repair in Honolulu. If you would like to help buy a new computer for this community, leave a comment or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Despite the fact that the U.S. is on track to experience one of its worst weather-related-disaster years on record, many in the U.S. do not attribute weather events like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or fire to climate change, particularly human-induced climate change. But this luxury is not one afforded to the countries that are on the front lines of climate change. While those of us in developed, high-emitting countries sit back and debate whether or not our activities intensify weather-related catastrophe (and the loss and detriment to human life that ensues), there is this lingering what-if question: if our actions and inactions carry the possibility danger and forced human sacrifice, why wait? If acting now might help, what are we waiting for?
For the Marshall Islands in particular, this is not the first time where land and people have acted as an American testing site… a what-if battleground of sorts. On March 1, 1954 alone, when the United States detonated the experimental hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, it’s strength was 1,000 times the strength of Hiroshima. 1,000 times. The Marshallese that called Bikini their home were sadly relocated to neighboring islands prior to the period of nuclear testing, which started in 1946. They watched as ironically named Bravo’s mushroom cloud soared into the air, and only hours later were covered in a toxic, nuclear mist. In the weeks and months that followed, perfectly innocent islanders experienced a sickening variety of symptoms, including nausea, itching, and vomiting at first, which over the years has led to hair loss, tumors, disfigurement, cancers, and death. In a dizzying and erratic turn of events, over the coming decades, the Marshallese were moved by the US Military back to the nuclear waste-sites that they still think of as their homes and then relocated back to “safer” islands multiple times, on broken promises that their contaminated islands were considered live-able. All in all, the Marshall Islands was home to 66 nuclear bomb detonations.
And for those of us that were not alive during this nuclear experimentation era, and therefore feel like we escape the feelings of guilt that come with inaction… a month ago, nearly 100 chickens and ducks died mysteriously on Kwajalein atoll- an inhabited nuclear contamination site. The United States has ruled out avian flu, but has yet to inform the Marshallese what the cause of sudden death may be. To think that these idyllically beautiful outer islands have somehow been scrubbed clean is to shamefully oversimplify the matter.
Comparing 66 nuclear experiments in a faraway land to our own personal greenhouse gas emissions may seem like a stretch. Maybe it is. But spending time in the Marshall Islands means that you think about these things. Every time I eat this tuna here and (somewhat selfishly) wonder whether it is contaminated or see an individual with physical deformities, I get this sinking feeling that we are doing it again. This time, rather than experimenting with nuclear bombs for the “good of mankind” (which is what the Marshallese were told they were contributing to), we are experimenting with emissions. I am certainly in this category myself- after all, I flew on a commercial airliner to get to this what-if observation deck. From the comfort of our homes, we debate whether our actions mean anything to the rest of the world. Whether our activity or inactivity impacts the world around us. What if? If there is a possibility that our actions impact others in nuclear proportions, is this a legacy worth repeating?
Fred Beren, a Filipino man who has lived with his Marshallese wife in the Marshall Islands for about three decades, does not know what is causing his country’s landscape and climate to change. But he thinks that Americans can do something about it. This belief comes from deep springs of hope; trust; and confidence, rather than a sense of blame or resentment. He understands that something bad is happening to his island home because he lives with the changes every day.
It is hard to imagine a home more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change- Fred’s home sits precariously on a small mound above the Pacific ocean, each wave lapping close to everything he owns. I stumbled upon Fred during a morning walk while taking photographs of the foreboding cemetery near his home. Friendly and sincere, Fred came out of his already ajar front door and seemed eager to connect.
He spoke fondly of a time when the Marshall Islands were “bigger” and more robust. He reminisced of a beach he used to swim at, where coconut trees provided shade (and perhaps a mid-swim break of sustenance). Now, he says this beach is nearly unrecognizable- the coconut trees have relinquished themselves to the shore- toppling under the stress of the advancing salty sea. He knows people who have homes near that particular beach who experience frequent flooding. Since he lives on the tide-side of the island of Majuro, he has noticed the waves increasing in intensity and height, particularly during the winter King Tide season.
When asked why this may be happening, Fred is not quick to blame. He wonders if the ice melting in other parts of the world might be contributing to the rising sea in his backyard. But during our conversation, I never sensed an iota of “agenda” or that he was repeating warnings that were preached to him in any way. Rather, Fred came across as a humble, simple, concerned man who loves his home. When I asked if I could take pictures of his back yard (the Pacific), he was hesitant at first because it had not been cleaned. He was referring to the garbage that washes up on shore, present on every remote island I have ever stepped foot on- inhabited or uninhabited. He loves living in the Marshall Islands because there is “no crime… it is safe here and the people are friendly.” But since he is very close to the ocean, he worries about bigger waves or further sea level rise in the future.
We walk to Fred’s backyard and notice gleeful Marshallese children bodysurfing on a consistent break just to the south of his home. Fred is concerned that I may fall and pays careful attention to my every rocky step as if I am a toddler navigating a stairway for the first time. As I thanked him profusely for his candor, he rushes to top my gratitude, thanking me for flying to his home and taking time to learn his story. I probed a little to find out why he was so appreciative of the opportunity to share his experience. In response- his parting words: “Because you are an American lady, you can do something for the Marshall Islands.”
If my yard flooded consistently, would I still mow it?
This is a question I ask myself often (basically since my fascination and concern for drowning islands began)- and for some reason, it’s usually in the context of lawn-mowing. When thinking about or writing on the subject of drowning islands, I often linger on the psychological and motivational impacts that climate change has on the hardest/soonest hit countries. If you live on an atoll, do you care about things like mowing the lawn (despite increasing floods), repainting the kitchen (even though you’ve heard your house may eventually be underwater), re-tile the floor (why? It’ll just flood the next time a storm comes through…)?
So, imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I first stumbled upon a Marshallese man trimming his lawn. Then another. And another. It appears that the Marshallese take great pride in even the appearance of their property, despite the worsening environmental struggles they face. This characteristic (persevering motivation) actually fits a theme of the Marshallese: we are not leaving. Come hell or high water, we are not abandoning our country. The Marshallese are inexplicably, tangibly, and holistically interconnected with their physical islands. As a people they remain committed to climate-solutions as opposed to throwing in the towel. In fact, a section of the RMI Constitution reads:
“All we have and are today as a people, we have received as a sacred heritage which we pledge ourselves to safeguard and maintain, valuing nothing more dearly than our rightful home on the islands within the traditional boundaries of this archipelago.”
I have an area in my yard that struggles- it’s this prime piece of side-yard real estate for me, but yet it lies lower than everything that surrounds it, so it floods and just generally struggles. My husband and I have tried various things throughout the years to improve it’s state, to no avail. I have thought about throwing in the towel on that particular section on many occasions, but I believe I have found my motivation to keep mowing, so to speak, in the Marshallese.
I have a special place in my heart for vulnerable communities that sit precariously above the water- the atoll nations of the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, in particular. But seeing my first atoll-nation grave-sites today made an emotional impression that I will not soon forget.
Today was my first day in Majuro in the Republic of the Marshall Islands- a thin strip of land nestled in between Hawaii and the northern tip of Australia. The country is certainly a contender for the “ground-zero” of climate change impacts, and is what I refer to as a “drowning island.” The land is short in stature, but what it lacks in height, it makes up for in brilliance and intensity it almost all things- color, scorching warmth, delicious tuna, drop-dead-gorgeous and giving individuals, and stunning scenery. This place feels like magic in a palpable way.
The color of the day morphed considerably- when I arrived in the morning, the landscape was muted to a bright white with shaded accents- the sun bleaching faces and storefronts, beaches and clouds. This evening, everything is tinged in varying shades of blue. It was swelteringly hot, but to get my bearings and to see and talk to the Marshallese people, I walked for several hours down the main road that connects furthest tip to furthest tip. The narrow stretch in between barely lifts out of the ocean. I’m not exactly an athlete, but I could throw a stone across the island in a surprising number of locations.
Walking may sound misleadingly easy, so let me set the record straight here. Apparently last night there was a storm that shot seawater higher and further than “normal” (a decreasingly accurate term in climate-vulnerable zones like this one). There was in incredible amount of standing water in the streets and yards, despite the pounding, intense rays of the sun. I basically ended up walking down the middle of the street, which is no easy feat in Majuro where there is a fairly constant stream of vehicle traffic down its busy, main road.
I talked to many people about the water. I even rolled up my sleeves and helped a small army of kids fill up wheelbarrows of soft, almost mustard colored sand to dump into their yards for a make-shift “sponge” effect (this was slow work and it was hard work). The general consensus was that rain and waves have always been part-and-parcel of island living, but that these forces have increased in duration, frequency, and intensity in this past generation. There are no party-lines on that one- elders and teenagers, men and women, business owners and happy-go-lucky alike agree: there is less land and more water in Majuro than there used to be.
What if our Existence was Threatened by Island Nation Action? Nauru’s Compelling Address to the UN Security Council
Security Council Open Debate“Maintenance of international peace and security: the interdependence between security and development.”Statement by H.E President Marcus Stephen, M.P.on behalf of the Pacific Small Island Developing States, Maldives, Seychelles, and Timor-Leste
20 July 2011, New York, New YorkI would like to begin by thanking Germany for hosting this important debate on climate change and its implications for the maintenance of international peace and security.
I have the honour to speak on behalf of the Pacific Small Island Developing States – the most vulnerable region to climate change – namely Fiji, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga, Vanuatu, and my country, the Republic of Nauru, as well as the countries of Maldives, Seychelles, and Timor-Leste.
Last month, the International Energy Agency announced that, in 2010, carbon dioxide emissions reached their highest level in history. Last year also tied for the hottest year on record and the volume of Arctic sea ice dropped to its lowest level since measurements began. All while catastrophic droughts, forest fires, and floods wreaked havoc on countries around the world. Scientists are now projecting that seas will rise by a meter or more by the end of the century – a scale that could wipe out many small islands in the Pacific and elsewhere. This despite 20 years of negotiations to reduce green house gas emissions to a level that is safe.
We must now come to terms with an unsettling reality: there is so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that serious impacts are now unavoidable and we must prepare.
In my frustration, I often wonder where we would be if the roles were reversed. What if the pollution coming from our island nations was threatening the very existence of the major emitters? What would be the nature of today’s debate under those circumstances?
But that is not the world we live in, and for us, this is not a hypothetical exercise. Many of our countries face the single greatest security challenge of all from the adverse impacts of climate change: our survival.
It is for this reason that we have come to the Security Council today.
In climate change, our islands face dangerous and potentially catastrophic impacts that threaten to destabilize our societies and political institutions. Our food security, water security, and public safety are already being undermined. Sea level rise is eroding our coastlines and in some cases damaging critical infrastructure. Territory loss could disrupt traditional systems of land ownership and spark conflicts over this and other increasingly scarce resources. Eventually, some islands may disappear altogether, and so with it thousands of years of cultural heritage. This would force large numbers of our citizens to relocate; first internally, then across borders. Even with an ambitious new agreement to address climate change, many of these impacts are now unavoidable.
The Security Council has recognized that it has a role in preventing conflict before it occurs, not just facilitating its resolution afterward. For this reason, it has recognized the necessity to address the “root causes” of conflict: unconventional security threats that can give rise to social tension and civil unrest such as poverty and development, competition over natural resources, and HIV/AIDS. For these issues and others, the Security Council has evaluated the problems and, in concert with other organs of the United Nations, deployed a variety of tools to address them. We ask no less of you today. The international response to climate change must be comprehensive, particularly given its global nature and its implications for every aspect of society. Make no mistake, the UNFCCC is and must remain the primary forum for developing an international strategy to mitigate climate change, mobilize financial resources, and facilitate adaptation planning and project implementation. The General Assembly must continue to address the links between climate change and sustainable development.
Likewise, the Security Council has a clear role in coordinating our response to the security implications of climate change. In the 2009 UNGA resolution on climate change and its possible security implications, we agreed that all relevant organs of the United Nations, within their respective mandates, should intensify their efforts to address climate change, including its possible security implications. An effective international response requires disaster planning and preparedness, detailed vulnerability and risk assessments, more effective multilateral coordination, and preventative diplomacy.
In our conversations with Security Council members, we have heard loud and clear that you understand the security challenges faced by the Pacific and other island nations; that you stand in solidarity with us. However, solidarity demands more than sympathetic words. Demonstrate it by formally recognizing that climate change is a threat to international peace and security. It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or terrorism, and carries the potential to destabilize governments and ignite conflict. Neither have ever led to the disappearance of an entire nation, though that is what we are confronted with today.
You have also asked us what concrete steps the Security Council can take to address this issue. Allow me to tell you. The Council should start by requesting the immediate appointment of a special representative on climate and security. This individual’s primary responsibility should be to analyze projected security impacts of climate change so that the Council and all Member States can understand what lies ahead. The Council should also request an assessment of the capacity of the United Nations system to respond to these impacts, so that vulnerable countries can be assured that it is up to the task.
These proposals are the absolute minimum required to move the international community from a culture of reaction to one of preparedness. As the Secretary-General concluded in his report on climate change and its possible security implications, “[T]he international community must anticipate and prepare itself to address a number of largely unprecedented challenges posed by climate change for which existing mechanisms may prove inadequate.”
Many countries have expressed concerns about the Security Council encroaching on the mandate of the General Assembly and the UNFCCC. We understand and share this concern, which is why our proposals have been narrowly tailored to address the security implications of climate change. However, we are more concerned by the physical encroachment of the rising seas on our island nations.
The Security Council must reflect current geopolitical realities if it is to remain relevant, both in its membership and the substance of its work. We applaud its recent decision to explore the security implications of such divergent topics as development; cultural and religious tolerance; HIV/AIDS; and women, peace and security. Yet the Council would render itself irrelevant if it chose to ignore the biggest security threat of our time.
Let me be absolutely clear, the security risks of climate change are all the more reason to reach a legally binding agreement under the UNFCCC with urgency. The international community must work towards more ambitious emissions reductions from all major emitters. The current pledges are grossly inadequate and would condemn the many small Pacific and AOSIS UN Member States – and the world – to a future marked by widespread conflict and unrest.
The Security Council is entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security under the United Nations Charter. Many of the world’s current and aspiring powers sit before me today. I urge you: do not bury your heads in the sand. Seize this opportunity to lead. I implore you to fulfill your mandate by dealing responsibly with the security implications of climate change.
Quoted from : http://www.pacificsids.org/statements/climate_change_and_security.html
Today’s New York Times op-ed below, written by “drowning island” Nauru’s president Marcus Stephen, is the perfect post for today- the first post after a brief hiatus, after traveling to Germany for the UN Climate Change negotiations. Please circulate President Stephen’s story at large- his cautionary words deserve exposure.
I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country.
At just 8 square miles, about a third of the size of Manhattan, and located in the southern Pacific Ocean, Nauru appears as merely a pinpoint on most maps — if it is not missing entirely in a vast expanse of blue.
But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years. Nauru is worth a quick Internet search, I assure you, for not only will you discover a fascinating country that is often overlooked, you will find an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits.
Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on. The legacy of exploitation left us with few economic alternatives and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and led previous governments to make unwise investments that ultimately squandered our country’s savings.
I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate, melting ice caps, making oceans more acidic and edging us ever closer to a day when no one will be able to take clean water, fertile soil or abundant food for granted.
Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding, and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.
Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages.
The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes.
Yet the international community has not begun to prepare for the strain they will put on humanitarian organizations or their implications for political stability around the world.
In 2009, an initiative by the Pacific Small Island Developing States, of which I am chairman, prompted the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the link between climate change and security. But two years later, no concrete action has been taken.
So I was pleased to learn that the United Nations Security Council will take up the issue tomorrow in an open debate, in which I will have the opportunity to address the body and reiterate my organization’s proposals.
First, the Security Council should join the General Assembly in recognizing climate change as a threat to international peace and security. It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or global terrorism. Second, a special representative on climate and security should be appointed. Third, we must assess whether the United Nations system is itself capable of responding to a crisis of this magnitude.
The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us. Negotiations to reduce emissions should remain the primary forum for reaching an international agreement. We are not asking for blue helmets to intervene; we are simply asking the international community to plan for the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time.
Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking. Making our island whole again will be a long and difficult process, but it is our home and we cannot leave it for another one.
I forgive you if you have never heard of Nauru — but you will not forgive yourselves if you ignore our story.
I am in New York at an incredible conference – the first of its kind – where the very issues in this blog are being discussed. The conference is entitled: “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate.” At the conference, scholars, scientists, attorneys, politicians, and people from the “drowning islands” across the world have gathered to discuss not only what is happening to these individuals and their homeland, but also what to do about it.
A few hours ago, John Silk, the Foreign Minister for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, leveled with conference-attenders in a very real, candid, and evocative manner. I would love to quote him, but I don’t write quite that fast, so the below words are as close to verbatim as I could get but at moments probably border on paraphrasing.
Foreign Minister Silk started by speaking about the experience of his people when dealing with the nuclear waste from WWII testing sites that the US established in his country. The devastation from what our country did during this testing has been well documented and lingers. On one particular occasion, when Minister Silk was working with professionals involved in the legal process that ensued, they were standing near a crater that was created by a nuclear weapon that had been capped with cement. It obviously needed to be sectioned off, and the Americans there asked something along the lines of “what do you want to put as a warning sign to prevent people from coming to this island?” The Foreign Minister’s response was compelling – Don’t ask us. You dumped this here. You need to come up with the words to warn people.
Mr. Silk then went on to compare this to the international response to small threatened islands and coastal communities. He conveyed the fact that they express knowledge as to the fact that these communities and countries are sinking, and that they realize that they have caused this (in large part), but then they ask: “What do you want to do? You’re losing your country. You’re going to have to swim, but where will you swim to?” His response: You tell us when to swim; but don’t tell us how to swim or where we can swim to… It seems to me that the emitting world is unwilling to allow us to swim to their shores.”
In closing, Foreign Minister Silk discussed the importance of putting a human face to this story- this crisis. He commented on (good and worthwhile) stories in National Geographic and similar publications that highlight climate change as it relates to erasing a species, like a bear. But what about losing a human species? Where are those stories? Foreign Minister Silk and I share our desire to identify this tragic dilemma by highlighting the beautiful people that are in peril.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Janice Person- an open-hearted and dynamic individual who happens to live in recently-flooded Memphis. After I heard Janice speak about the floods on the BBC, I sought her out, and she was kind enough to entertain my follow-up questions during this difficult and somber time.
Janice’s thoughts about the peculiarities, tragedies, and mysteries surrounding a flood provide incredible insights into the plight of the drowning islands (and their inhabitants). While Janice admitted that she doesn’t necessarily “study” climate change to the degree that some others do, her witness to the events of the past several weeks shed light on the “slow-moving thing” that is “strange and surreal.”
Here are pieces of what Janice shared with me:
“There are folks that know they are the first to be flooded. Part of what happens is that this is such a slow-moving thing. It’s a bit strange and surreal. A tornado comes out of nowhere and then it’s gone. This has been building up for a very long time… People know it’s coming. It’s strange to see water coming up over a period of time- a slow progression.”
This “surreal” experience, the slow progression, that Janice spoke of reminds me of several conversations I’ve had with islanders in the front-lines of climate change and sea-level rise. That slow, gradual, lurking, pervasive knowledge that their land is disappearing seems similar to the southern experience that Janice described so well.
“There is a sense for some that they just won’t leave no matter what, that’s part of it… Some people aren’t sure where to go… For some folks, their houses flood every few years because of where they are. They love living close to the river. There’s a draw to the river. Everyone knows the Mississippi has this incredible power… There’s a sense of wanting to live closer to it… I think people get a very defined sense of place… The thing that is the weirdest to me is when people ask: ‘why would you live in a flood zone? Move!’ The flood zone is some of the most productive land in America! You choose to live somewhere for a variety of reasons… There’s a deep, inherent personal connection to where you’re from.”
As Janice shared these thoughts about a deeper, immutable sense of place and connection to home, I couldn’t help but draw strong parallels with islanders that hover just above the ocean. It’s easy to ask someone to move, but it takes more time, sensitivity, and certainly creativity to understand the powerful lure that “home” has and how we can work within that.
“Now I think more people will be aware of just how devastating the water can be. The choices that have to be made along the river with these spillways, that’s something… [rather long and fairly heavy pause here]. Mentally knowing that your home and your land is the first to be sacrificed- that’s really hard.”
I wonder what sort of sacrifices we are asking of those in far-away lands at this very moment. Our daily activities, our creature-comforts, our political and economic decisions- what impact do we have as we open our metaphorical spillway? My pictures in this post are of several beautiful, rather somber Maldivian islanders from a very small and very flat island in the Baa atoll in the Maldives- perhaps very similar to those 25,000 residents in communities on the Morganza spillway who sacrificed their homes this past week in order to spare larger cities from the destruction of the water. Be sure to visit Janice Person’s blog- http://jplovescotton.com/ -and contribute to the cleanup effort as these brave communities put their lives back together (the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and United Way all have donation links on their websites).
I can’t help connecting tsunamis, floods, an individual drowning, and the rising tide of climate change in my mind. These events share a textual, emotional, even symbolic connection. Once I commit thoughts to paper (or screen), I fully and readily admit the many differences between specific water-trauma events. Of course- the present floods in the US south are different from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which was different than Hurricane Katrina, which was unique from Japan’s recent earthquake/ tsunami/ and subsequent nuclear disaster, and these are all quite different from what climate change has and will do to small, flat islands standing alone in our oceans.
But speak with someone who has been afraid of, saddened because of, traumatized in some way because of the water, and notice that these individuals and groups speak the same language. The language is emotional, wistful, and in my opinion, the words come from someplace deep within that is reserved for water-trauma and water-trauma alone. I’m not a therapist or psychologist, but I have talked to those that fear the water in a very personal way that is almost… earned.
This week I will be writing about those that have experienced “water-trauma,” and hoping that we start to weave a web of understanding and compatibility for people across the world that have been or fear traumatic impact from water. I hope for and work towards a better global understanding and recognition of this language that those individuals speak because I believe it will build to a heightened sense of compassion for those in that are losing their land to the sea as climate changes.
I sign off today with a quote from one of this morning’s AP stories on the horrific flooding in the US South (linked below). My heart goes out to those impacted during these floods. As we listen to and respond to their stories, we start to learn a new language- one that sheds light on the plight and future of those in the “drowning islands.”
Merleen Acosta, 58, waited in line for three hours to get her sandbags filled by prisoners, then returned later in the day for more bags. Floodwaters inundated Acosta’s home when the Morganza spillway was opened in 1973, driving her out for several months. The thought of losing her home again was so stressful she was getting sick.
“I was throwing up at work,” she said.
An IPCC working group just released a report on renewable energy that brings cause for celebration on many fronts. The report is a good read for the broad spectrum range of interests among us- those that see climate change as a business opportunity for solutions-developent, to those that simply desire a stronger commitment among nations and individuals to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and to those that care deeply for the “little guy” – the “drowning islands” – and worry about their ability to survive and thrive in a changing world. The report highlights renewable energy’s ability to significantly and safely reduce climate-change causing greenhouse gas emissions. It states that by 2050, 80% of the world’s energy needs could be met through the renewable energy sector- a shocking figure and welcome good news.
RE can help accelerate access to energy, particularly for the 1.4 billion people without access to electricity and the additional 1.3 billion using traditional biomass.
Further, and of specialized interest to me personally, the report discusses renewable energy’s availability to small countries. In the picture below, taken on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia, the islanders of Tacquille received this solar panel as a gift from the government. My knowledge here is limited to what island residents shared with me as we walked around the terraced potato and bean crops one sunny afternoon, so I have to go on trust with the details. Tacquille island’s infant mortality rate is apparently quite high for geographical and weather-related reasons. (Apparently and tragically, the tiny, steeply sloped island receives frequent massive and chaotic storm events, making it tough for child rearing.) In sympathetic recognition of a particularly fatal year, the government provided this and other solar panels to the islanders. I think the gift is a beautiful reminder of our fragility in the midst of a strong, demanding, and increasingly traumatic world, but also of the planet’s constant donation of usable and easily harness-able resources, even in locations as remote as the middle of Lake Titicaca.
IPCC’s Renewable Energy Report Summary for Policy Makers (only a summary of the length report: http://www.ipcc.ch/meetings/session33/doc20_p33_SPM_SRREN.pdf
As a teaser of what’s to come, I want to introduce you to Vositha Wijenayake- a daring, talented, and refreshingly candid environmental activist I have recently come to know. Vositha lives and works in Sri Lanka, where she is getting her LLM degree through the University of London as a correspondence student, she’s a part-time French lecturer, the executive coordinator for a youth organization called the Sri Lankan Youth Climate Action Network, and a self-professed “Green Freak.” And, she’s lovely- passionate, fun, generous, and one of those people that just won’t settle until they see the world change for the better.
I first discovered Vositha thru her blog (linked below) because she reposted a speech she gave at a recent UN climate change negotiation session that was somewhat blustery, emotional, and candid. In her speech, Vositha shares the following real-life vignette- just the kind of non-fiction that makes me tear up but also drives me to action. I think you’ll love her words, and I can’t wait to tell you more about her experiences in posts to come. (And yes, I hope to highlight Vositha’s Madlivian friend soon as well…) I’ve trimmed this only slightly, just for length-
I was at the 15TH Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC, chilling out, when one of my friends from Maldives walked in crying. If you recall the summit held in Copenhagen it was one with a huge crowd and my friend always gets confused for a 15 year old. So for a moment I thought someone might have done something to scare her… So I ask her for the cause of her distress, and she goes “our countries is not in the globe.”
For a moment I was confused. I thought she was talking out of trauma or something. I realised a few seconds later that she was referring to this huge globe that they had placed within the conference premises and people walk past on a daily basis.
She was crying because Maldives was missing on that globe… For me, it was something that might seem funny. Sure, the dot it missing in the globe, but Sri Lanka is still on the globe! I mean “ the” globe. But for those who are facing peril, on a daily basis, it is not a joke. For them it was a matter of personal attachment. Their country is drowning, and will eventually NOT be on that globe, if some substantial measures were not to be taken. And the little dot that was missing on that globe, well it did mean something more than a dot to them.
So my friend Shehan, who was wiser than I, took a marker, went and put the dot on that globe, where Aisha pointed out her country should be. And that made her happy.
But the question is, can we solve the real problem, the problems of all who suffer of a similar plight, not their country being missed on a globe, but suffering of real threat to lose their homes… I would have loved to have told her that it was a task as easy as that. But as you and I both know, it is not.
Find Vositha’s speech in its entirety, as well as her blog, here- http://vositha.wordpress.com/2011/04/30/youth-for-climate-change-solutions-transcript-of-speech-delivered-at-tedx/
“We have become a force of nature” – Vatican’s Report on Climate Change calls for Habitat Protection and Action
In a new report commissioned by the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, written by a world-class team of scientists affiliated with one of the world’s oldest scientific academies, the Vatican urges dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
The report highlights world renowned and Nobel-prize winning Paul Crutzen’s term the “Anthropocene era.” His theory is that we have entered into a new geologic epoch, where human activities and emissions impact our ecosystem. The Vatican’s report highlights how we have imperiled vulnerable societies across the globe. The report suggests that if we claim to care about humanity, we have a responsibility to protect our environment:
“We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us…”
Tom Painter, a NASA snow hydrologist, who was present at the Vatican meetings, candidly states that “We have become a force of nature.” The report called for three urgent measures: reducing the amount of “warming air pollutants” such as methane and soot by as much as 50 percent; reducing worldwide carbon emissions by stopping deforestation and other initiatives;and preparing for now-unstoppable chronic and abrupt changes.
How do we – the “force of nature” – suggest that those in the “drowning island” countries prepare for these chronic, abrupt changes? Consider countries like the Maldives, which is comprised of roughly 1,200 tiny, nearly flat islands in the Indian ocean. The Maldives already lost 20 islands during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami*. Or Tuvalu, a Pacific ocean island with under 11,000 inhabitants and a peak elevation of less than 5 meters. Or the Marshall Islands, which has a maximum elevation of 10 meters, with most of the country living just inches above the sea. How do we expect them to cope with what we have done and with what we, the force of nature, continue to do. Comments on this question would be much appreciated, because as I show in the picture above and the picture below (the daily crew of sandbag fillers and movers), sandbags are about as helpful as you can imagine…
Find the New York Times Article here: http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2011/05/06/06climatewire-green-smoke-is-sighted-as-vatican-releases-g-91480.html