Swimming in rising waters

By Nic Maclellan (Islands Business magazine) in Funafuti, Tuvalu

As Pacific leaders and officials begin arriving for the 50th Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, they’re greeted by Tuvaluan children waving flags. But the children are seated in water, symbolising the rising tide that threatens the vulnerable atoll nation.

The forecourt of Funafuti airport has been transformed, with the creation of a symbolic village on a small island, surrounded by water. As dignitaries arrive, they must walk past young children immersed in water, waving the national flags of Forum member countries.

It’s the first time since 1984 that Tuvalu has hosted the Pacific Islands Forum. But for the Polynesian nation of just 11,000 people, whose land is just metres about sea level, it’s an important moment to raise awareness of the challenge of climate change.

Arriving leaders are directed to a notice: “Before us we see the devastating effects of climate change on our children: sea level rising, land erosion, cyclone damage. Threats such as these are ever present for Pacific island nations. In your meetings this week, remember: we must act before it is too late, we must save Tuvalu to save the world.”

Young people in Tuvalu are also having their say, organising a Climate Youth Forum on 1-2 August. Youth delegates have presented Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga with the “Funafuti Youth Declaration on Climate Change”, calling on the government to declare a state of Climate Change emergency.

The youth declaration states: “We are facing a climate change crisis and urgently call on governments, representatives of industry and individuals to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas pollution and to reduce their carbon footprint…. Food and water security is critical for all of us and we all must take action to ensure our future. It is our firm belief that we have a future on our islands and will not give up.”

The youth delegates propose a range of initiatives, including: strategies for train the trainers in climate change awareness and actions; bans on the use of single use plastics; post-trauma counselling for people who have suffered from the impacts of climate change; and the creation of a Tuvalu Cultural Day to be held once a month “where the use of motorbikes and other petrol vehicles be banned and where we all eat local foods, such as fish caught from traditional methods, and to include cultural training to build the understanding of youth.”

Solidarity across the region

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be attending this week’s regional summit for the first time, as part of his policy dubbed the “Pacific step-up.” Australia is the largest Forum member and a crucial development partner with Forum island countries. But there are stark differences over climate policy, given the lack of ambition in Australian targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, Canberra’s failure to pay its fair share of the 2020 global target for climate finance, and the Morrison government’s support for the expansion of coal mining and exports.

Speaking to journalists before this week’s Forum meeting, Tuvalu Prime Minister Epele Sopoaga stressed that the regional summit would aim to build solidarity between Forum member states, despite the gulf in climate policy between Australia and its island neighbours.

“I think it is critical that we try to enhance or ‘step up’ our commitment to solidarity, working together on our common goals that we share,” Sopoaga said. “Where we differ, probably those issues could be left for experts to deal with at operational levels. But we really need to step up our leadership solidarity, taking account of the achievements we’ve done over the past years. I’m totally committed to further building the trust and respect amongst the leaders and the nations.”

Prime Minister Sopoaga stressed the importance of the humanitarian impacts of climate change, and the many ways that the largest Forum members are inter-twined with their smaller Pacific neighbours. He noted that there were large Pasifika diaspora communities in Australia and New Zealand, but also many Australians and Kiwis – “your children and grandchildren” – working and living in the islands.

“We have to remind Morrison that Australians include Tuvaluans as well,” he said. “There are Tuvaluan families there in Australia. There are huge communities of Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. Scott Morrison, you have amongst your country Tuvaluans, Fijians, all countries that are represented here in the Pacific.

“Your policies about coal mining, releasing greenhouse gasses – regardless of how much money you give in the ‘step-up’ policy, it doesn’t mean anything. Why? Because you are helping to have serious implications on your own people who are living in Tuvalu and Kiribati.”

Sopoaga argued for a focus on the direct impacts of climate change, and the need for leadership in climate action.

“We need to bring these people connections more visible to the leaders, so they are not driven by the politics of the unions back in Australia or by the industry and Adani coal mining,” he said. “Bring the real effects on people on the ground to the attention of these leaders. If they don’t accept it, I don’t think we can call them leaders. I don’t think they are serious about saving the people, their own people.”    

Resisting climate displacement

Neighbouring island countries such as Kiribati have discussed the concept of “migration with dignity”, offering opportunities to migrate for people displaced by the adverse effects of climate change. But Sopoaga stressed that his nation was not ready to accept this fate.

“We in Tuvalu have been trying to build the trust and conviction that we can still do something – not to give up, but to do something to save the islands, to save Tuvalu,” he said. “We believe that relocation is going to be a cheap cost to those who caused global warming and climate change.”

He noted: “It will be so easy for them to pass a resolution in the United Nations: ‘We resolve to look for money to relocate these guys to somewhere safe.’ But there is nowhere safe in the world because of climate change.

“I think for such a resolution to be brought up in the UN, it’s immoral and inhuman, and will not stop the causes of climate change. I think it’s self-defeating and therefore in Tuvalu we say ‘No, we are going to stay!’”  

On 12 August, the day before the formal opening of the Pacific Islands Forum, the host government has organised a Sautalaga dialogue, to look at responses to the global challenge of climate change. The climate debate will then be a feature of the official summit, from 13-16 August.