Pacific islanders seek recognition as climate ‘refugees’
Sea levels have risen by 20 cm over past century, COP21 told
Tuvalu Islands’ Prime Minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga speaking on the opening day of the UN climate change conference. (Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)
An overhead view of Ejit, center, with the ocean to the north and a lagoon to the south, of the Marshall Islands, where rising sea levels are already an inescapable part of daily life. (Photograph: Josh Haner/The New York Times)
A group of men rebuild a sea wall on Ejit, Marshall Islands, one of a number of Pacific islands threatened by rising sea levels. (Photograph: Josh Haner/The New York Times)
Pacific islanders on the frontline of climate change are demanding that they should be recognised as refugees, rather than economic migrants, if they are forced to abandon their fragile homelands by rising sea levels.
A survey released at COP21 found that more than 70 per cent of households in the island nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu said they would be prepared to move elsewhere if the grim situation they face gets steadily worse.
Sea levels have risen by around 20cm over the past century and some outlying uninhabited islands have already been lost, prompting 15 per cent of those living in Tuvalu (population 10,837) to emigrate within the past 10 years.
Kiribati (population 102,351) purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji with the aim of growing food there, but it might also become a future home for the islanders so that they could “migrate with dignity” if sea levels continue to rise .
But the survey, which also covered nearby Nauru (population 10,084), found that only a quarter of the people in the three island nations -- where average earnings are just over €11 per month -- would have enough money to move.
Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga told the COP21 opening session: “Our survival as a nation depends on the decisions we make at this conference … Just imagine you are in my shoes. What would you do? No leader here faces the burden I do.”
President Christopher Loeak of the Marshall Islands (population 52,634) made a similar appeal. Wearing a traditional garland around his neck, he said: “Everything I know and everyone I love is in the hands of those of us gathered here today.”
President Barack Obama met leaders of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Papua New Guinea as well as a Barbados and St Lucia in the Caribbean before leaving Paris on Tuesday and said their people had “a right to dignity and sense of place”.
But his climate envoy, Todd Stern, made it clear on Wednesday that the US “would not accept the notion of liability” to pay compensation to vulnerable countries under the “loss and damage” mechanism being discussed by delegates at COP21.
The Association of Small Island States is pressing hard for such a mechanism as well as fighting to ensure that the long-term goal of any agreement should aim to limit global warming at the relatively safe level of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.