If climate change continues at its current pace, the entire population of Kiribati is going to have to move–and soon. So soon that the government of this Pacific island nation has actually purchased a plot of land 2,000 miles away, in Fiji.
Pelenise Alofa, National Coordinator of the Kiribati Climate Action Network, spoke of the harsh realities faced by Pacific islanders at the Women in the World Summit on Thursday morning, in a panel discussion on climate change moderated by ABC journalist Juju Chang.
“With the coastal erosion, our islands are getting smaller and we have people losing homes,” said Alofa.
She recalled one particularly traumatic day this year. It was just “a normal day” in February when “we had a high tide”–a regular event. But this time was different. “It came up above our seawalls, right to the homes of people, and brought everything in the ocean”–garbage, pollutants– “with it.”
“I ran to go and see and take pictures,” she said, all the while wondering: “Is this real?”
Native Alaskan Patricia Cochran, director of Alaska Native Science Commission, spoke of similar devastation in her region. Eight-five percent of communities in Alaska are coastal; locals are seeing their homes engulfed by rising seas. Changes in ice density can be deadly for hunters and fishers. “There’s hardly one of us who doesn’t know someone who’s gone out fishing or hunting on the ice and never returned home,” Cochran said.
Some populations in Alaska have already been displaced. Newtok, a small community in western Alaska, began the process of relocating 10 years ago. They have “little choice … to do anything other than move,” said Cochran. “They have lost homes, infrastructure. Their entire sewer system has been destroyed.”
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, emphasized the fundamental unfairness of the status quo: It’s Westerners’ “lifestyles based on fossil fuel, oil, gas” that threaten to put “whole countries out of existence.”
“The stories we’ve just heard are from people who have not caused the problem,” she said. “That’s part of the injustice.”
Robinson cited an estimate that 200 million people will have been displaced by climate change by the year 2050. She worries about the world her five grandchildren will inherit.
“I wonder what they will think about us, what they will say about us,” she said. “If we don’t take the right steps in 2015, they are entitled to be so angry with us.”
In the meantime, the people living with climate change in Alaska and the Pacific will carry on the best they can. When their seawalls are washed away, they build them back up. “That’s the life of our people,” said Alofa. “Disaster comes, and we continue to live.”
“We’re very adaptable, resilient people,” said Cochran. “We’ve learned to be self-reliant.”
The panel concluded with an impassioned call for action by Mary Robinson and a dramatic show of solidarity from everyone in the live audience who rose to their feet with the panelists onstage: “We are the first generation to fully understand the seriousness of climate change, and the last generation with time to do something about it.”