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Canaries of Climate Change

Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society
Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Text by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jaclyn Mandoske

Ten million people of the Pacific Island Nations are calling – and we have yet to answer their plea. Like the canary in the coalmine, thousands of drowning islands in the Pacific are telling us that something dangerous is happening. As ocean levels continue to rise higher onto their low-lying lands, millions of people are facing a reality that threatens their homes, their families, their economies and their entire way of life. It is a reality for which they aren’t even responsible – the very real effects of climate change.

As June 2014 turned to July, forty-one nations came together in New Caledonia for ‘Oceania 21’, a three-day summit on Sustainable Development in Pacific Island Nations. Presidents, prime ministers, government officials, scientists and concerned residents stood in solidarity – I along with them – to address the future of their nations and the epic battle they will all face as climate change continues splashing up their doorsteps.

It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever encountered. Sitting alongside these nation’s leaders, I felt the intensity and urgency of their voices as they spoke about the prospects of their country and future of their people – a future not hundreds of years away, but one that is rapidly approaching and taking a turn for the worse.

In the short term, sea level rise will lead to the destruction of infrastructure, roads, buildings and crops. It threatens the food security and availability of freshwater for entire nations, as higher sea levels and more powerful storms will lead to the contamination of these precious resources. In the long run, they will see entire islands disappear, drowned under the rising tides of the sea. They will no longer have homes – they will be the refugees of climate change.

Vows to Reduce

Rising ocean levels, increasing intensity of storms and swells, longer droughts…. Unpredictable and increasingly dangerous weather are the tell-tale signs of climate change that scientists have been warning us about for decades. Oceania 21 called upon world leaders to listen to their stories, their plans and their plea for change. Among the nations present were representatives from China, the United States and the European Union, the top countries with the highest carbon dioxide emissions in the world. Although the entirety of the Pacific island nations contribute less than 0.1 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions, they are leading by example by vowing to completely reduce their dependence on the carbon emitting fossil fuels that threatens so many of their lives.

Tokelau, the smallest country in the world, is also leading the world as the first nation to implement 100 percent renewable solar energy. Following their footsteps, countries like Fiji and Tonga are in the process of completely converting to renewable energy; while the Cook Islands, Niue and Tuvalu plan for 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2020. Many of the Pacific Island nations acknowledge the imperative need for sustainable energy development, yet many lack access to these resources and will continue to suffer as the effects of climate change surge forward. 

While their human presence may be small – a mere 10 million out of 7 billion people inhabiting Earth – the nations of the south Pacific represent not only the resources of their land, but also the resources of the largest body of water that bathes our planet.

The Pacific Ocean spans 70 million square miles (180 million km2): half of the entire ocean that covers our earth. Each one of the 200 high rising islands and 2,500 low lying islands and atolls that make up the south Pacific island nations are surrounded by 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zones (EEZ), giving them jurisdiction of 10.5 million square miles (27 million km2) of our oceans resources.

Photos: Nicholas Imbert
Photo: Nicholas Imbert

Unity is the Solution

So what have they done with this authority? Kiribati, a small Pacific island nation with roughly 300 square miles (800 km2) of land – and 1.3 million square miles (3.4 million km2) of ocean, created one of the world’s first marine sanctuaries in 2006, setting aside over 155,000 square miles (400,000 km2) called the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). Kiribati is one of the first nations that will fall victim to the devastating effects of our shifting global climate – already, they have had to purchase land in Fiji in anticipation that they will have to relocate their entire population in the near future.

Following Kiribati’s initiative for marine conservation, countries like Fiji and Palau have set aside vast areas of the ocean to protect. In 2012, the Cook Islands set aside 425,000 square miles (1.1 million km2), establishing the largest marine reserve in the world of its time. Recently, New Caledonia added another 540,000 square miles (1.4 million km2) of marine protection. Together, these sanctuaries will allow our life-giving oceans the chance to recover from decades of overfishing, exploitation and negligent abuse.

Nations of the Pacific islands have long endured an intimate relationship with the sea. For as long as their ancestors have lived on their lands, the people of the south Pacific have survived on the abundance of life carried by the ocean currents. As modern technology has brought with it advances in fishing, petroleum extraction and commercial exploitation, the ocean has suffered. Still to this day, millions depend on the ocean for the food they eat every night. It is means by which they survive.

We must speak up and spread the word about the plight of the Pacific island nations. The people who call these islands home deserve one unified voice so loud that it demands the world to listen. Their solution is our unity and the power of our collective voices to call on world leaders for real changes in the fight for their future. Most importantly, we also must take action. We need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, demand that our decision-makers support renewable energy and that we share the reality of climate change with others.  Island nations in the South Pacific may seem remote, but our future is connected to their future because we all share the same home: our water planet.

The ocean gives us life. When we protect the oceans, we protect ourselves.

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