Pacific Islanders Speak Out At Paris Climate Negotiations

We’re bleary-eyed, brandishing banners in the early morning light. Rae Bainteiti, a 25 year-old youth delegate from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, jokes that this might be the first and last winter he’ll wear a puffer jacket in the Parisian cold. Stepping towards the press encircling our demonstration, he addresses the crowd in a suddenly serious tone.  “Our lives,” he says, “are not negotiable.” As true as that may be, in the plenary rooms beyond, ministers are putting brackets around his future.

Our lives are not negotiable.
— Rae Bainteiti, youth delegate from Kiribati

I’m here at the climate change negotiations in Paris, covering the issue of the impact of climate change on population displacement. In the past week, negotiators have been hammering out a legally binding agreement that aims to limit global warming to 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. For Rae — whose home nation of Kiribati sits at an average of two meters (about seven feet) above sea level — the current draft of the Paris agreement might not be enough to protect his home.

According to numerous reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Kiribati’s low-lying shoreline settlements will be extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, fresh water salinization, and storm surges. By 2050, a significant percentage of Kiribati's densely populated capital, South Tarawa, could be a salty swamp.  

Listening to Rae, I could already paint a picture of what climate change will look like for Kiribati. Just this February, an abnormally high ‘king’ tide swept across one of Kiribati’s islands, destroying sea walls, flooding homes, and contaminating fresh water wells. “They had to move women who were pregnant inland to keep them safe, because the tides had destroyed the sea wall and invaded the [local hospital’s] maternity ward,” Rae explains. He adds that his grandmother’s garden, 200 yards from the shore, was also inundated. “We rely on fresh vegetables for nutrition to keep the family healthy. [Rising tides] will affect me, and my community.”

"Our plea is very simple: Let us give substance to the pledges that are made. Let us not pay lip-service to an issue that requires urgent action." Kiribati President Anote Tong speaks at an event at COP21. Photo credit: Mattea Mrkusic.  

"Our plea is very simple: Let us give substance to the pledges that are made. Let us not pay lip-service to an issue that requires urgent action." Kiribati President Anote Tong speaks at an event at COP21. Photo credit: Mattea Mrkusic.

 

Stories like Rae’s have conjured a heartbreaking question about climate change-related migration in the Pacific. While migration remains firmly the last resort, Kiribati’s Prime Minister, Anote Tong, has launched a “Migration with Dignity” policy to pre-emptively deal with the issue. A multi-layered contingency plan, the policy calls for the education and training of Kiribati’s youth, so that young people may be able to voluntarily take advantage of economic opportunities overseas, and start new homes elsewhere.

President Tong has also explored bilateral options of relocation with his country’s regional allies. During the opening plenary, I watched President Tong offer his thanks to Fijian leaders, who have offered to take in the citizens of Kiribati and Tuvalu should their homes become uninhabitable due to climate change impacts.

Speaking to Rae, however, something is absolutely clear: the people of Kiribati do not want to leave their home. “There’s a special secret about happiness [in Kiribati] that you’ll never find anywhere else in the world. It’s a connection between families, Christianity, traditional knowledge, and the land of our ancestors.” As I listen to him, I understand that climate displacement does not only violate basic human rights; it threatens the cultural backbone of Kiribati, and the individual sense of home.

So, where does this leave us? How can the Paris agreement prevent climate change-related displacement?

First, the international community will need to sufficiently curb emissions to prevent or mitigate the most devastating impacts of climate change. The Paris agreement should reflect what low-lying island nations, other developing nations, China, and as of yesterday, Australia and Canada have been pushing for: a 1.5°C limit to warming by the end of the century. This means that many developed countries — including the United States, and my home country, New Zealand — need to be more ambitious than their current 2°C proposal. As it currently stands, each country’s individual commitment to decreasing greenhouse gases adds up to 2.7°C of warming by the end of the century. That’s not good enough to prevent Rae’s people from losing their homes.

Climate displacement is fundamentally an issue of climate justice, with vulnerable countries who bear little to no responsibility for climate change bearing the brunt of its impacts.

Second, recognizing that some of the current and future effects of climate change are already locked into the atmosphere and largely irreversible, the international community must increase adaptation funding to help Kiribati and other vulnerable countries build resilience to climate change impacts. Strategic and bottom-up resilience efforts will help the people of Kiribati remain in their homes. The section of the draft Paris agreement on adaptation must recognize the need to support countries to take measures to avoid displacement and allow people to remain where they are.

Finally, should climate displacement become the very last resort, states should facilitate participatory planning with communities to ensure informed and dignified relocation. Both the host and moving communities must have the capacity to deal with the changes that come with the migration process. Currently, the Paris text proposes that a “climate displacement coordination facility” should be established to support countries to manage climate change-related displacement, migration, and relocation. This displacement mechanism might be able to serve as a forum to facilitate dialogue between UN agencies, international organizations, and civil society to identify future needs concerning climate displacement.

Climate displacement is fundamentally an issue of climate justice, with vulnerable countries who bear little to no responsibility for climate change bearing the brunt of its impacts. As Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said last week, “ These are not our problems. We did not cause them. But we want to be part of the solution.”

It’s time for the leaders of developed nations to be part of this solution. Because for Rae, and many other citizens of low-lying island nations, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Mattea Mrkusic is former Refugees International intern. She is currently in Paris at the COP21 climate negotiations, representing New Zealand an Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegate. You can follow her coverage on Twitter @MatteaMrkusic. 

Top photo: Rae Bainteiti (pictured center, in a blue shirt), speaks at “Climate Displacement: Voices from the Frontline,” a side event at the Paris climate talks.