Whilst the world’s attention is focused on the refugee crisis, another crisis, decades in the making is unfolding. The climate change crisis facing Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati, Niue, and other atoll islands is slow in motion by human standards, but unrelenting in its literal erosion of these nations into the sea. Perhaps a debate more literally about death or survival than most currently happening, the Pacific Island nations know they face a grim future, but getting larger nations to acknowledge it is another thing altogether.
Every year it grows more urgent. Every year, the little atoll nations of the central Indian and Pacific Oceans are a few millimetres closer to being permanently flooded by sea water. Every year there is the risk that a typhoon or tropical cyclone will do so much damage that there is no point in trying to recover because the total cost of repairs outweighs their economic worth.
Recently the President of the United States visited Alaska. Whilst on that tour he spoke about the effects of climate change on Alaska and why and how the United States needs to act. Imagine for a moment if the President of the United States swapped places with his Kiribati counterpart. What a lift for these nations it would be if someone in a real position of power were to visit these nations. Whilst President Barak Obama has to be applauded for his efforts on climate change, it would bring them into perspective in a way that few can understand from afar if he were to visit some of these little island nations for whom the tide – something that rises every twelve hours – is literally eroding their future, bit by bit.
Right now the Pacific Island Forum is on in Papua New Guinea. These little island nations whose future is in question are threatening to walk from the conference or ask Australia to leave if they are made to compromise on the reduction goals for climate emissions. As much as I encourage them to make a stand, walking from the conference will probably not help much since it just frees up the attention of larger nations such as Australia and New Zealand to focus on things that they consider more important than a bunch of sand piles surrounded by beautiful coral in the middle of the Pacific. It is a harsh assessment to make, but I think that this is probably the view of the New Zealand and Australian Governments.
I hope it is not in my time that a visibly upset Pacific island leader has to front at the United Nations and tell them that ____________ (name a Pacific atoll nation), no longer exists because erosion has caught up with it. But I fear it will be.