July 22, 2013

Confronted by the front line – our connection with the Pacific

On the back of Bill Mckibben’s world wind tour of Australia, I was very fortunate to join 500 other climate campaigners from around the world in Turkey for Global Power Shift. The gathering brought together representatives from 137 and was an incredible insight in to the many campaigns that are being fought, in different cultures and of the many successes communities are having in opposing the fossil fuel industry. These past months my by the many battles that are being fought on the front line in Australia against fossil fuel companies, challenging them not to heed the maths which shows 80% of known reserves must stay in the ground. Though this is essential, I was very grateful for the experiences in Turkey which broadened and deepened my understanding of this global problem.

During my time at Global Power Shift in Istanbul it was confronting to hear the stories of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific Islands. They are really at front line of this battle as the maths they face is some of the most difficult. Nations like the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu rise little more than 5 metres from the ocean.  For some parts of the world one degrees warming is treated like a rounding error, in the Pacific it is a critical change. With just one degree of global warming the oceans are steadily rising each year, weather patterns are changing, storms and droughts are becoming more severe. One of my new friends from the Marshall Islands looked up from his computer whilst we spoke one day – heavy rains were coming down in the Marshall Islands, causing flooding in regions that are normally dry at this time of year. Unpredictability is increasingly becoming the norm for these communities with many fishers and farmers having to develop new methods and seasonal cycles to maintain their livelihoods. It doesn’t take a mathematician to understand our current emissions trajectory does not equate to a safe future for the Pacific.

There is a deep contradiction at play here. Australia, which I was told is generally well regarded in the Pacific, presents itself as the ‘big brother’ of the region, being a principal development aid provider to many of the islands. However, while on one hand Australia acts out the role of the ‘good Samaritan’, on the other it seems bent on ripping coal from the ground and sucking up gas to export to the world,  dramatically increasing CO2output. If Australia goes ahead with all the proposed fossil fuel projects (including the 9 mega mines in the Galilee Basin) we will chew through roughly 20% of the world’s carbon budget and be a major contributor to the climate crisis.

This story could end here and be quite bleak, after all what can the peoples of these tiny Pacific Islands do in the face of substantially bigger countries and the colossal fossil fuel industry?  But the reality is far from this. The Islanders infused the conference with their energy, positivity and strong culture. I witnessed their creativity in finding novel solutions to their problems when I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop in which representatives of the different nations shared the clever and low-cost adaptations being implemented to help farm and fishing yields and to protect against severe weather and drought. During the opening session the Islanders took the stage and shared with us their ‘We’re Not Drowning, We’re Fighting’ project. Drawing on the warrior spirit of the islands, each nation contributed a dance and chant relating to climate change that was compiled into a powerful video.  Though they face some of the most severe impacts from climate change, these people are prepared to fight for their lands, people and culture. They are an inspiration.

Whilst we face our own battles at home I think it is important to remind ourselves of the climate impacts beyond our immediate borders. I am ashamed of how ignorant I was before the conference of issues in the Pacific and am incredibly grateful to the Islanders for their willingness to share with us. I know all the Australian participants walked away from Turkey motivated to continue building our connections with the Pacific to contribute to their campaigns where we can and always remember to share their moving story.