The Climate Crisis Is Making the Pacific Islands Unlivable

TPeople in many parts of the world are facing an uncertain future due to climate change. Paradoxically in my region, the Pacific, it is making our future increasingly certain—but not in a way that gives any kind of comfort.

Many Pacific Island countries will be uninhabitable by the end of this century. My country Tuvalu is halfway between Australia and Hawaii. This could occur in the next 20-30 years. Although other Pacific Island states on the frontlines of climate change will have to wait a bit longer, it is clear that our ultimate destination does not depend on guesswork.

Climate change is seen by most societies as about reducing carbon emissions and mitigating future climate impacts. A more serious threat is the imminent danger of total inundation. My generation and the next will not be able to live on these islands, which have provided shelter for our ancestors over the centuries.

Tuvalu and its Pacific neighbor have done nothing that has caused climate change. Carbon emissions combined across the entirety of the Pacific Islands amount to less than 0.03% of the world’s total—even less if we speak of historical emissions. It isn’t our fault that we are facing an existential threat. However, it will change us.

It is urgent that we start to discuss how this will be achieved.

All people, of all ages, demand leadership in addressing climate change. Tuvalu represents a test of leadership. If an entire nation is allowed to vanish from the climate, then what chance will there be for others?

Times like never before

Science can’t tell us when our home will be uninhabitable. It does however tell us when.

Salt water seeps into our water aquifers as the ocean rises. Rising oceans bring higher waves, which can cause more destruction to our fields and villages. Flooding makes soil salty, which decreases yields and damages trees. Floodwaters wash away infrastructure such as roads and homes. There is no higher ground available for rebuilding.

Our tourism industry relies on coral to sustain our fish stocks and our tourist. As the ocean acidifies and warms, this coral will also die. Individuals and entire countries are increasingly finding it difficult to sustain their existence. The families leave slowly; the country becomes less stable, spiritually and legally anchored to an island that is rapidly disappearing.

This is how an atoll in the Pacific dies. This is the way our islands will end up dead.

Inaction brings responsibilities

Tuvalu is still in the middle of this salination-degradation-degradation process. However, we have come a long way from where we started.

Despite numerous international agreements and commitments, global greenhouse gases emissions continue to increase, with many countries continuing to seek a future powered by oil, coal and gas.

This is the first time in history that the collective action of many nations—or more accurately, the collective inaction of many nations—will have made several sovereign countries uninhabitable. This is a crisis of unprecedented proportions that requires radical intervention.

Continue reading: We Can’t Have a Stable Climate If We Keep Destroying Nature

Our situation is not covered by international instruments like the Convention on Statelessness. Neither does the United Nations’ various efforts to address climate change. Agreements reached at its annual summits, including last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, cover a wide range of issues like targets for cutting emissions or commitments for international finance to address impacts. The conversations regarding the imminent uninhabitability for sovereign states were disappointing.

Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands have launched the Rising Nations Initiative in an effort to address current gaps in knowledge, legal frameworks, political commitment, and awareness. Global community should engage in a responsible and serious dialogue, which acknowledges the reality and rights of Pacific Island nation like my, as well as our fundamental rights.

There is no better time to begin than now, as U.S. President Joe Biden hosts the first joint summit between the US and the 12 Pacific Island states in Washington, D.C. President Biden speaks of a “broadening and deepening cooperation” on issues such as climate change. We are grateful for his support in starting a process to find a way forward that will eventually lead to a solution for the urgently endangered nations.

Sovereignty, dignity, Integrity and honesty

Global settlements are needed to ensure that Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and other nation states have an uninterrupted existence after the end of the atoll’s inhabitable lives. It must protect and recognize our cultural and economic integrity as well our sovereignty. This must be created and implemented with Island nation governments and peoples, and not be forced upon them by other nations.

This settlement could lead to us moving elsewhere in the globe where our peoples are welcomed and honored. The peoples of the world will be able to preserve their sovereignty and citizenship as well as our culture and tradition, and they can expect education in these languages and traditions. While we don’t want to put unnecessary burdens on other people, it is natural justice that our land does not become an empty shell. Economically, we can continue to support ourselves—in the case of Tuvalu, for example, using income from the continued sustainable use of the Exclusive Economic Zone around our islands.

Statemanship and empathy are required to find the best solution. This starts with acknowledging that global problems must have an equitable and just solution.

Pacific peoples raise their children to appreciate the land, sea, and sky as life-providers. We are now, without fault, forced to give up the land, sea, and sky which have helped us build our culture and identity. We don’t demand nor condemn charity. However, we ask for kindness, support, as well as justice, that acknowledges this grave fact. International community must take immediate action. We can’t afford to delay.

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