Tomorrow the front lines of the Pacific region’s battle against climate change will be dramatically shifted from island nations to Australia. In a bold display of soft power, islanders from some of the most remote countries in the world will paddle traditional canoes out to the mouth of the Hunter River, New South Wales, to form a seawall blocking shipping from leaving the Port of Newcastle for the day. Designed to quite literally slow down production at the world’s largest coal port long enough to make executives and politicians pay attention, the distinctly Pacific-themed protest will draw on centuries of island tradition to sound a battle cry across the harbour: “We’re not drowning, we’re fighting.”
Planned by the Pacific branch of global youth organization 350, the protest brings the reality of climate change in the Pacific into the spotlight in Australia. “We just want people to see that it’s a beautiful damn island that will go underwater,” says event co-organiser Mikaele Maiava of Nukunonu, a coral atoll that’s part of the Polynesian nation Tokelau. “And if it’s gone, everything for us is gone.” He’s worked collaboratively with youth from 12 different Pacific countries to develop the ocean-bound protest. “When we all came up with ideas for using canoes in the voyage,” says Arianne Kassman, volunteer co-ordinator for 350 Pacific’s Papua New Guinea chapter, “it was to show people in Australia and the big fossil fuel industries that, as the Pacific, we hold onto our traditions.” Cut from single trees and handcrafted with guidance from their elders, the canoes are a symbol of all that’s worth fighting for in the Pacific. When the five of them help slow down production at Newcastle’s coal port, they will also take on a global significance. The message being paddled in the canoes on Friday is that when it comes to climate change, the voices of those living in even the most remote corners of the world can’t, and won’t, be ignored. The youth of the Pacific will no longer settle for being faraway, invisible warriors when it comes to having a stake in their future.
Warriors are needed in the Pacific. Many countries in the region are in the world’s lowest development and economic brackets. Yet tourism is high. Most of the countries contribute just a drop in the ocean to global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the region is one of the hardest hit by recent climate change. The dots don’t quite add up. Being known internationally for more than just their beaches requires positive, relentless, activist, action. For Maiava and Kassman, this starts with getting global leaders and fossil fuel industries to acknowledge that unless carbon emissions are reduced worldwide, their right and that of islanders across the ocean, to live and die where they were born – every aspect of their lives – is jeopardised by climate change.
Take Tokelau. The average temperature is expected to rise up to three degrees over the next century if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere aren’t kept below 350 parts per million. Currently, they’re at around 400 and rising. As it is, the current changes in atmospheric conditions are already messing with daily life on Tokelau’s three atolls. Sea levels have risen since the 1950s and in worst case scenarios could rise another 1.5 metres by 2100, flooding low-lying parts of the atolls. As well as this, king tides, storm surges and droughts are becoming more frequent, says Maiava. In 2011 the island group, a territory of New Zealand, faced a state of emergency when a drought caused fresh water supplies to drop so low that drinking water had to be shipped in from neighbouring countries. With no fresh water lakes or rivers, the situation is further complicated. The salt, from seawater that’s been washed ashore and evaporated, is dangerous. It’s infiltrating ground water and killing food crops from the roots up. Essential fresh water is becoming an unreliable resource.
If global temperatures can’t be kept below two degrees over the next century, many other islands like Maiava’s Nukunonu face the brunt of the flow-on effects from burning coal and other fossil fuels. Just a one metre rise in global sea levels as ice sheets melt will render some countries, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, uninhabitable within the next 50 to 100 years. Carteret Islanders, whose homeland lies off the coast of Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, have already lived through the changes many low-lying small island countries are experiencing. Most of the atoll’s 1500 inhabitants have been forced to migrate to land plots on Bougainville, leaving their ancestral homeland, culture and way of life to be washed away with the tide.
Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels contribute to 78 percent of greenhouse gasses worldwide, and Australia has the highest levels of emissions of greenhouse gases per capita. It doesn’t take much to see that – particularly as the biggest country in the region – how Australia approaches climate change affects how the Pacific region is able to survive. Stopping trade at the Port of Newcastle is a way to physically put the voices of the Pacific Islands into a discussion about why Australia is continuing to invest in coal at the expense of its neighbouring countries.
Like stemming the blood flow of a main artery, effects of the blockade will be felt elsewhere too. The port is a hub for moving coal from companies working in the Hunter Valley to some of the biggest Asian markets, including Korea and Japan. Its political and financial influence on the energy sector is global. Having supply shipments delayed by five canoes and a fleet of Pacific Islanders on kayaks sends a pretty clear message that young people in the Pacific won’t allow their futures to continue to be determined by fossil fuel companies or government administrations that are negligent towards climate change mitigation. They may be small in number, but the smallest of actions can have the biggest of results.
The warriors’ ambitious ask from the day of action is that that the Australian government reduces its reliance on coal for energy and starts a meaningful conversation about reinvesting in renewable resources. Fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. Particularly ambitious given the coal sector – a $60 billion industry – is on track to bring Australia’s federal government $10 billion in tax over the next four years, making the battle to mitigate climate change a double-barrelled mix of politics and economics.
“You know, you can never change the mind of an activist,” says Maiava, a civil servant, artist, long-time UN worker and volunteer co-ordinator of 350 Pacific’s Tokelau branch. “And if you ask them how realistic [our asks are] we’re always going to say it’s 200 percent.” It’s his undying optimism that has helped to shape the day of action in Newcastle. Maiava, 36, was part of a group of young people from across the Pacific, as well as Australia and New Zealand, to come up with the original protest idea at a 350 Oceania conference in Auckland three years ago. Since then, volunteer co-ordinators like Kassman have been working on the ground in 15 different Pacific nations to ramp up efforts to educate their communities about how the changes they’re seeing on the land are related to climate change. From the Solomon Islands to Samoa, awareness workshops have been held to talk through the key points of localised risk reduction and climate change mitigation strategies.
But it’s gotten to the point where localised action is not enough to help the Pacific region. “Tokelau is leading the world of renewable energy but you don’t compare oranges to apples, you know,” says Maiava. A recent conversation between Tokelau’s Ulu (leader) Aliki Faipule Kuresa Nasau and Dean Dalla Valle, head of coal giant BHP Billiton – one of the biggest companies shipping from the Port of Newcastle – highlights this. Played out in open letters online, the Ulu invited Dalla Valle, who has cheered on coal as a means of pulling 1.7 billion people out of poverty worldwide, to come to Tokelau to see the effects of coal and fossil fuels on the front lines – not of poverty, but of climate change. He also invited Dalla Valle to see how the small nation has invested in renewable energy and taken its power completely off the grid by installing solar panels. It was an invitation that was, unsurprisingly, declined. One world leader in innovation was trumped by another world leader in pollution.
Regional dialogue is also somewhat stagnant. Australia and the region’s other big nation, New Zealand, contribute billions to aid budgets across the Pacific, prop countries like Tokelau up with projects to enhance clean drinking water, and invest in report after report detailing the effects of climate change in the region. Australian government department reports provide some of the most convincing literature about the effects of global warming in the islands. New Zealand’s government departments suggest extensive measures for climate change risk reduction across the Pacific. The country’s courts have also dealt with complex migration issues relating directly to the threat of environmental degradation – most recently denying an I-Kiribati man refugee status based on a claim that his life was in danger due to climate change. The regional problem isn’t so much in talk; it’s in action. Official risk reduction strategies and reports don’t address the source of the problem: fossil fuels and carbon emissions. Helping to facilitate aid is useful, but a bandaid solution.
September’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS) conference in Samoa in September further reaffirmed that unless the global community comes to a binding agreement on reducing emissions, mitigating above risk reduction is a hard sell. “Nobody has been coming forward enough,” commented Kiribati President Anote Tong, who has regularly spoken of the need to form meaningful mitigation and migration strategies, during the conference. “I don’t want to point the finger at Australia and New Zealand – they’re making a contribution – the question is, will it solve our problem? The answer is no.” More than 300 intergovernmental partnerships and task force groups were officially recognized at the conference. But “it’s not enough to just have partnerships,” says Maiava. “You have to have action and that’s where we come in.”
For the past year, efforts on each island’s chapter of 350 Pacific have been focused on working with elders to build the canoes. It’s been a mutually beneficial process for many communities and has breathed a new, modern purpose into the oldest of island traditions: sailing across oceans is this time not about discovering new lands, but fighting for the ability to stay on existing ones. For logistical reasons, only five canoes have been shipped to Australia for the protest. In PNG, Kassman’s 350 team chose a tree and a region that was as representative as possible of the hundreds of cultures within the country. However, this meant that getting the canoe from its remote inland location to a port in time to be shipped to Australia was an unrealistic task.
Although they’re part of the global organisation, it’s also an expensive project for 350 Pacific – a charity with just three dedicated staff – to pull off. Roughly $125,000 has been raised to train the warriors, ship the canoes and fly around 30 people from 12 countries to Australia, and to host them for several days. But to shift the climate change front lines to the coast of Australia, it’s worth every hard-earned penny. As well as the day of action the young advocates like Kassman have already been connecting with Pacific diaspora. They have visited coal mining towns and indigenous communities and will continue to seek to extend their support base within the Australian general public, as well as lobbying government officials and the coal industry. After Friday some of the warriors will spend more time speaking at events around the country, sharing the thinking behind their Pacific brand of activism.
And they’ll be reminding all people they meet that the fight is not about their rights to become future refugees under international law, or their rights to move around the region – or in Maiava’s case to resettle in New Zealand. It’s about their right to stay and live in the islands. And to prosper without having the environment destroyed by greenhouse gases and a global warming epidemic that the Pacific has barely contributed to. It’s about solidarity and it’s about resistance, it’s showing that change relies not just on talk but on action, peaceful action. And the trip certainly isn’t about sympathy. As Maiava is the first to point out – aside from the environmental challenges – his island life is good. “Your dreams of going to exotic places in paradise are our reality,” he says. But it’s a reality that is delicate and hangs in the balance of global geopolitics and economic pressure. With a global climate change summit approaching in Lima and the renegotiation of the Kyoto Protocol looming in 2015, that reality is attached to visibility. When it comes down to it, the protest is ultimately about a power shift.
It’s one thing to use a blockade to make the coal industry stop and pay attention, and it’s another to have its executives actually take the time to listen. Regardless of whether the Australian coal mining industry or Tony Abbott’s administration’s pay attention to the Climate Change Warriors though, tomorrow’s day of action is important. It will create waves among the international community. It is a significant milestone in the global war against climate change because no longer are the voices of young Pacific Islanders a distant battle cry. While islands like Tokelau may be far removed from the dealings of coal industry executives, they are still at the epicentre of the war against climate change. And using handcrafted canoes to stop multinational countries from exporting fuel is symbolic. “It shows them that from a tiny atoll, we’re bringing the life of the people,” says Maiava.
Hannah Spyksma is a freelance journalist from Northland, New Zealand. She is about to embark on a PhD programme in journalism in Brisbane, Australia. Read more by Hannah.