IN December last year, the head of the small Pacific island state of Tuvalu challenged the notion that low-lying atoll nations must inevitably succumb to the adverse effects of global warming.
Prime minister Apisai Ielemia told the UN climate conference in Poland: “It is our belief that Tuvalu, as a nation, has a right to exist forever. It is our basic human right. We are not contemplating migration. We are a proud nation with a unique culture which cannot be relocated elsewhere.”
This sentiment was reaffirmed at this month’s Copenhagen climate change conference by Tuvalu’s chief negotiator Ian Fry: “Tuvalu is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and our future rests on the outcome of this meeting.
“My prime minister and many other heads of state have the clear intention of coming here to sign on to a legally binding deal.”
Bad luck, Kevin Rudd’s key climate adviser Ross Garnaut says.
According to his, it is inevitable that climate change will displace South Pacific populations: “The South Pacific countries will end up having their populations relocated to Australia or New Zealand and the rest of the world expects that. In the end, we’re likely to accommodate them, so that’s a solution.”
Garnaut argues that in coming decades, Australia will have bigger concerns than accommodating the 10,000 Tuvaluans who may be displaced by climate change.
By the time Tuvalu is rendered uninhabitable through the adverse effects of global warming, peak oil and global trade policy, hundreds of millions of people in the developing world will face crises over food security and access to drinking water.
The social crisis in much of Asia and Africa will dwarf the problems facing small island developing states. Even so, many Pacific islanders I have spoken to recently were shocked by the casual attitude to their fate shown by Garnaut and other commentators.
For indigenous communities, the prospect of leaving their land is no small matter.
Climate displacement is increasingly debated in the Pacific, but many people recognise that resettlement is not simply a matter of transport, food and shelter – it is a complex social process involving human beings with hopes, dreams, aspirations and especially memories.
Garnaut’s glib talk of relocation as a “solution” does not go down well in the region, given that Australia’s last “Pacific solution” involved locking up people next to a phosphate mine in Nauru.
In spite of the environmental impacts already locked into the ecosystem, the physical and economic crunches that will drive climate displacement will not happen overnight.
For this reason, Tuvalu and other small island states continue to stir the pot at the global climate negotiations, highlighting the need to reframe the debate and guarantee the right to development for affected communities – wherever they are – through stronger action on greenhouse gas emissions, increased adaptation funding and technology transfer.
In Copenhagen, the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia pressed Brazil, Russia, India, China and other nations to to guarantee verifiable and binding emissions cuts.
But Tuvalu and other smaller vulnerable states challenged the neat dichotomy of “developed” and “developing” nations.
Earlier this year, Tuvalu joined other Alliance of Small Island State (AOSIS) members to propose a legally-binding protocol to be incorporated under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties, to complement (not replace) the Kyoto Protocol.
These amendments aim to secure new and deeper post-2012 emission reduction targets for industrialised countries currently bound by the Kyoto Protocol.
The new targets would also be reflected in a new protocol to be adopted under the Convention, sitting side-by-side with legally binding targets for the US.
As it turned out, when the US, the European Union and China finally thrashed out a final deal, nearly half the membership of the United Nations General Assembly was sidelined.
As Tuvalu’s negotiators have shown in Copenhagen, Pacific Islanders are not just sitting back to await their fate. – newmatilda
* Nic Maclellan works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands and is co-author of La France dans le Pacifique and After Moruroa – France in the South Pacific.