On Tuesday night, July 28, around 300 people filled the Brisbane Room in Brisbane’s City Hall to hear speakers from the front line of climate change – residents of the Torres Strait and Pacific Island nations Tuvalu, Micronesia and Kiribati.  It’s very rare for me to attend a forum with seven speakers all addressing the same topic where I haven’t been dying to leave by about the third speech. But the speakers at this forum were all direct, informative and engaging.

Almost all the domestic political debate on climate change in Australia to date seems to have been focused on arguments about the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) and to some extent on the relative merits of energy derived from renewables like solar wind and geothermal, or gas, or coal with sequestration or nuclear power.  Very little attention has been paid to the dire consequences facing many island residents – even Torres Strait Islanders get little attention, despite being part of Australia.

Ms Pelinise Alofa Pilitati, the Chairperson of the Churches Education Directors Association in Kiribati, emphasised the bonds between all the people of the Pacific region.  She spoke of water supplies and soil already getting saline, with damage being done to coconut palms which produce their main cash crop.

She also gave the example of the Banaban people. I had not been aware of this group, who were displaced by the Japanese in WW2 & again by western nations to enable phosphate extraction, and may now be facing a third shift.

Rev Tafue Lusama, from the Christian Church of Tuvalu; also spoke of the increasing degradation of water and land quality.  Damage to their coral reefs from warming water and ocean acidification will also deplete their fish stocks and weaken a natural protective barrier against storm surges.  The impact of this was made all the more stark when he informed people that the highest point in Tuvalu is about four meters above sea level.  He stated that their whole right to existence as a nation is under challenge.

Ms Marstella Jack, the former Attorney-General of the Federated States of Micronesia, noted that their staple diet of fish, coconuts and bananas were all under threat from climate change.  A couple of times during the evening she emphasised that her people don’t want to leave their islands, but they may not have any choice, as well as stating that it was natural that people in times of crisis would turn to their neighbours for help.

All three speakers, as well as Mr John Kris, who spoke as the Chair of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, called for Australia to adopt and push for much stronger and quicker emission reduction targets of at least 40 per cent by 2020, as well as more assistance to enable vulnerable island peoples to adapt.

King tides and storm surges have always been a fact of life for people living on islands in the Torres Strait, but the meeting was told that areas that had never been affected before, such as cemeteries and buildings, were now being inundated at such times.

Sam Reuben, a Townsville based man of Torres Strait Islander heritage outlined the human rights aspect of climate change.  In particular, he drew on the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the current Australian government has formally endorsed.

Article 8 of the Declaration includes the following:

Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.  States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:
a.    Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;
b.    Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;

The application of climate change in this context and the obligation it puts on governments is obvious.

The speakers from Oxfam and Greenpeace were short, strong and to the point, emphasising our obligation to do all we can to assist poorer peoples in our region.  Andrew Hewett, the Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, also stated that the federal government’s current reduction targets are not good enough, and should be based on science, not politics.

He also said climate change was one of the dominant issues for anyone concerned with poverty & development issues.  If an agreement is reached at the upcoming Copenhagen summit which is not just, then it simply won’t work.  That means we all need to work to create the political will for greater emission reductions, as well providing more help to island peoples for adaptation, and think in advance about how best to deal with almost inevitable movements of people that will be occurring in the near future.

Hewitt warned that it would be risky to wait until the forced movement of people begins before figuring out what to do on the hop.  We need to plan how best to allow easier movement of people and ensure it is done in a manner that if based on the views of the people of the Pacific.

The evening as a whole was chaired by Sonia Caton, who is the Director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service in Brisbane.  Linking in with Andrew Hewitt’s comment about the movements of people that will be brought about by climate change, she emphasised that such people would not and should not be called refugees.  Movement brought about by natural disasters and extreme weather events are not covered by the Refugee Convention, which is another to think now about the best and fairest migration law framework to apply to people in these situations.

The same speakers will be in Melbourne on Thursday 30 July and then in Cairns on Sunday 2 August, in the lead up to the Pacific Islands Forum being held there next week.

Another group of people affected by the impacts of climate change on water will also be doing a speaking tour of Australia next months.  This time, instead of people from the tropics, it will be people from the icy mountain regions of Nepal.  Their Big Melt tour aims to draw attention to the huge impacts on water supply for millions of people if the glaciers melt.
The speakers will visit Canberra, Sydney, Wollongong, Brisbane and Melbourne between August 11 and 17.

ELSEWHERE: If for some reason you want to see my efforts to live-Tweet this forum, search for #climatechangePacific on Twitter.

See also this piece by Bernard Keane at Crikey.

This article by Jane McAdam and Maryanne Loughry examines why the people of Tuvalu and Kiribati don’t like the term ‘climate refugees’.

Some good balanced background information on Tuvalu and the climate change debate, by David Corlett, authour of Stormy Weather: The Challenge of Climate Change and Displacement.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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