In the eye of the storm

Jamie Melbourne-Hayward is blogging from the Pacific Climate Change Conference 2016

Climate leaders gather in Wellington

Two months ago, 195 countries made history by signing the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change. The world is now faced with the task of turning promises into action. In the Pacific, where low-lying atolls are already disappearing, the action cannot come soon enough.

This week in Wellington, a wide range of voices are gathered, including Pacific leaders, to discuss what impact the agreement will have in reality. The title of the Pacific Climate Change Conference captures this sense of urgency: “In the eye of the storm.”

The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, who was one of the leading Pacific voices at the Paris talks, opened the conference. He spoke of how humanity has overcome past hurdles once considered impossible, such as slavery. Tong described the long journey to recognition he and other Pacific leaders have been on, including being ignored, laughed at, challenged by climate deniers, and then finally reaching consensus at Paris.

“Everyone was talking about terrorism, no-one wanted to hear us. So I decided to come up with ‘climate-terrorism’. And still, no one paid me any attention!”

His story is reminiscent of a famous saying by Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

Standing up for the Pacific

For Tong, Paris was only the beginning. The people of Kiribati and other low-lying atolls are on what he calls the frontline of climate change.

“What I mean is when I go out fishing and see the palm trees bending right over, into the sea, a whole line of them. Then the next time I go out, the next line of palms are falling into the sea. And so on. That is what I mean by the frontline.”

For nearly 30 years Tong has worked to persuade the international community to take action on climate change pollution, and his Pacific coalition at the COP21 was instrumental in having the 1.5°C target mentioned in the final document. Due to their ability to focus the Paris Agreement on moral issues, the Pacific leaders were dubbed the “conscience of the COP”.

“When leaders say they need growth for the poor, I ask them to finish that sentence. Growth for the poor, but at the cost of others…[and] it means people in another place will be displaced. Don’t turn a blind eye.”

Tong is already preparing his people for some tough decisions. His government has worked on an emergency plan to relocate many of the nation’s 105,000 people, which includes purchasing land on a Fijian island. If the worst predictions come true, the goal is to migrate with dignity.

Meanwhile, he has asked for the assistance of engineers from Holland and Dubai in shoring up the islands during increasing unpredictable and violent storms. “There is no ready solution. We have even considered floating islands.”

These issues are particularly salient in New Zealand, which is home to the largest Pacific population in the world. Given all of our linkages to Pacific people and cultures, the sentiment at this conference is clear: New Zealand can and should be doing more to stop climate change and help vulnerable people prepare for the future.


Watch what others from the Pacific have to say about climate change