Mattea Mrkusic: Opinion: Pacific Voices on Climate Displacement

This article originally appeared on the Refugees International website

Kiribati's Rae Bainteiti (center, pictured in blue), presents at the 'Climate Displacement: Voices from the Frontline' side event.

Kiribati's Rae Bainteiti (center, pictured in blue), presents at the 'Climate Displacement: Voices from the Frontline' side event.

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.

I’m here at the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, covering the issue of climate displacement. In the past week, negotiators have been hammering out a legally binding agreement that aims to limit global warming to 2°C by the end of the century. For Rae, whose home nation of Kiribati sits at an average of 2m above sea level, the current draft of the Paris agreement will not might not be enough to protect his home.

According to numerous IPCC reports, 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 most populated island, South Tarawa, could be a salty swamp (IPCC 2007).

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, 200m 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.”

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 I-Kiribati 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 its 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 or 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.

From left to right: New Zealand youth delegates James Young-Drew and Renée Annan, Kiribati Children Campaigner's Network delegate Rae Bainteiti, Seychelles youth delegates Zara Pardiwalla and Lisa Bastienne, and Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegate Mattea Mrkusic

From left to right: New Zealand youth delegates James Young-Drew and Renée Annan, Kiribati Children Campaigner's Network delegate Rae Bainteiti, Seychelles youth delegates Zara Pardiwalla and Lisa Bastienne, and Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegate Mattea Mrkusic

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

First, in order to reduce climate change-related displacement, the international community will need to curb the devastating impacts of climate change. The Paris agreement should reflect what the G77+ China, low-lying island nations, (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 Global North voices, including the United States, and my home country, New Zealand, needs 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.

Second, recognizing that some of the effects of climate change may already be irreversible, the international community must increase adaptation funding to fund resilience efforts. Strategic and bottom-up resilience efforts will help I-Kiribati remain in their homes. This should be couched in the ‘adaptation’ part of the Paris agreement.

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 set up under the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.

Climate displacement is fundamentally an issue of climate justice. This is an issue of vulnerable countries bearing the brunt of climate change. 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.” Now, it’s time for the leaders of developed nations to be part of this solution.

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Photos by Mattea Mrkusic. All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on December 8, 2015 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2015, Institute Updates.