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.
Tomorrow morning marks the beginning of a two week eco project in Grenada – a simultaneous greening of a historic plantation inn and the filming of a documentary which highlights Grenada’s tremendous accomplishments on the world stage of leadership in sustainability and climate activism. My team (of volunteers- are they amazing or what?!) consists of Jamie Jones (Photographer and Videographer), Aimee Gerot (Team Assistant and Liaison), Andy Meakins (Architectural Design and Planning), and Kody Jones (Construction Captain and Problem Solver). We are enthusiastic to participate in a project that is rooted in Grenada success and Grenadian talent- our lineup is packed with movers and shakers, including organic farmers, women small business owners, inspired politicians, and leaders in sustainability, just to name a few. I will post regularly – if you know of something in Grenada that we should know about, chime in!
(Note- this post will be located under the “special projects” tab)
Drowning islands made national news headlines again today:
“The low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati is considering purchasing land in Fiji to help secure a future threatened by rising sea levels.
Kiribati’s President Anote Tong is in talks to buy 23 sq km (9 sq miles) on Fiji’s Vanua Levu island.
The land is wanted for crops, to settle some Kiribati farmers and to extract earth for sea defences, reports say.
Some of Kiribati’s 32 coral atolls, which straddle the equator, are already disappearing beneath the ocean.
None of the atolls rises more than a few metres above the sea level.
Fiji, which is more than 2,000km (1,300 miles) away, is one of a number of countries that Kiribati hopes its population may be able to move to in the future.
The chairman of Fiji’s Real Estate Agents Licensing Board, Colin Sibary, said he was facilitating talks between Kiribati officials and a Fijian freeholder who owns the land on Vanua Levu.
“I’ve been working very hard on this for Kiribati for a year,” Mr Sibary told the BBC.
“After the purchase they will formalise a development plan which will include various farms to produce vegetables, fruit and meat for export to Kiribati.”
He said Kiribati officials also hoped to bring barges into Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, to take away landfill to help stop encroachment by the sea in Kiribati.
At most, he thought 500 Kiribati inhabitants might end up living on Vanua Levu, involved in farming and working on the landfill project.
“There is no thought of moving them all,” he said.
President Tong said climate change was a daily battle for Kiribati, but has admitted it is one his country would ultimately lose.
He said moving the Kiribati population would be a “last resort” to save the more than 100,000 islanders.
Relocating the entire population would be a monumental challenge, says the BBC’s Phil Mercer in Sydney.
Kiribati’s officials hope that many people would also be allowed to settle in other countries in the vast region, including Australia and New Zealand.
Previously, Mr Tong suggested constructing man-made islands resembling oil rigs for people to live on.”
Read the full story at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17295862
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 met Ian Rampersad at the Threatened Island Nations conference last week- an innovative, creative, caring advocate and spokesman for the interconnectedness of climate change and human rights, in his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago and abroad. Ian recently wrote a paper covering these issues- an excerpt that touches on individual story and thus finds its way here. Ian spoke with me about his Caribbean home’s changing climate, which includes an ever-lengthening dry season and an increasingly extreme wet season, with flooding rains that leave individuals stranded for considerable periods of time. Ian’s most memorable thoughts during our time together? “There needs to be a paradigm shift- a recognition about what climate change really is and what it’s doing to individuals all around the world.” A notable selection from Ian’s paper is copied below. The above picture- of Columbus Bay in Trinidad and Tobago – shows the dwindling and quickly eroding rock formation referred to as the “three sisters”- this formation used to be much larger and protected the island from the weather events highlighted below. As the naked eye can see, these spindly formations no longer offer much protection.
A recent article by Radhica Sookraj, a reporter for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian Newspaper, clearly illustrates how the very severe effects of climate change are currently affecting the people of Trinidad and Tobago. The Article details a visit by various Government Ministers to the fishing village of Icacos on the south-western peninsula of Trinidad. The erosion observed was most evident at the Icacos main road where toppled telephone lines hung over the roadway which led straight into the ocean. Coconut tree-trunks littered the shoreline as the sea lapped directly onto the roadway.
“A resident of the area, Wilber Isaac, said the area once had a light house but this too had been claimed by the sea, ‘there used to be a savannah here, but that too has gone’ , he said. ‘Two houses already collapsed into the sea and each day more and more of the coast is falling into the water.’” The Article further described stagnant pools observed around houses where mosquitoes buzzed, and residents say they were unable to leave their homes at nights as the mosquitoe problem was so bad.
 Trinidad Guardian 2010 Radhica Skookraj