Paradise Sinking

SUBHEAD: The abundance of renewable energy sources, such as coconut oil, the sun, the wind, and geothermal and hydro options, make the transition a no-brainer for the islands.

Image above: Lost palm trees sue to rising seas on the shores of Piul, New Guinea. From  

By Ben Bohane on3 December2009 in Haaretz -  
Piul Island, Papua New Guinea - Chief Bernard Tunim confronts the issue head-on: "We did not create global warming, but we are its first victims. The industrialized world must take decisive action at the Copenhagen summit before it is too late for everyone." Standing in knee-deep water on Piul Island, Tunim points to the decaying stump of a coconut tree nearly 200 meters offshore from the beach. "That was our shoreline only 10 or 15 years ago," he says.

"Look how the sea is eating us away. We are only a small island, the king tides have already swamped our gardens, and soon we will have to leave. The future of my island is now only for fish, not people." Piul is one of five atolls that make up the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea.

The 3,000 islanders who live on these beautiful yet vulnerable coral islands have been recognized as the world's first climate-change refugees. Preparations are being made to relocate them to Bougainville, a large mountainous island nearby, over the next year or two. For them, talk about climate change and rising seas is not an abstract concept but a hard reality. Tunim has no time for debates over whether the problem is man-made or not. Either way, the effect for him and his people is the same - they will lose their homeland. Like many islanders, he worries that the debates between scientists and climate skeptics - along with government inaction - are delaying concrete action.

Two or three times a year, king tides wash over the islands, destroying the gardens with their force and salinity. Root crops like taro and sweet potato, once the ingredients of a staple diet, can no longer be grown, and the Carteret islanders are now living on fruit, fish and food aid, mainly rice, sent by the regional government. It can be a terrifying experience to be on these low-lying atolls during a storm, when wind and seas lash their vulnerable villages. "My husband and I have had to rebuild our hut twice in the past few years because of flooding," says one woman on Han Island. "I woke up in the morning once with water rushing in, and my pots and pans floating out to sea."

Young people are ready to leave once enough land and housing has been set aside for them on Bougainville. They say they have no future here. Yet many older citizens say it is too late for them to leave their homes. They are too old to start new gardens. They prefer to "go down with the ship," they say with nervous laughter. The kastom - the traditional life - of many Pacific islanders revolves largely around the ever-present spirit world. Ancestral spirits are acknowledged and often worshiped. Part of the islanders' current trauma comes from the feeling that they will be abandoning their ancestors, including those buried in cemeteries. "The hardest thing will be to lose our sacred places, our tambu places," says Chief Paul Mika from Han Island.

"We can talk to our ancestors, and they can talk to the gods to calm the weather or bring rain when we need it. We tried using magic to stop the rising seas, but it seems not to have worked. The old gods can't hear us. Some elders blame sorcerers from other islands, or that canoes are traveling too much, or that the young people are misbehaving. Some say the old gods are angry that we are Christian now, so they are punishing us by flooding our islands." While the Catholic Church has given some of its land for resettlement on mainland Bougainville, the autonomous government there is having trouble acquiring larger tracts of land for the Carteret refugees.

Competition for land is intense throughout the region, with populations growing and most good agricultural land already in use. The Bougainville government is facing an issue that many other governments will soon face: how to relocate entire communities so they can be self-sufficient and live harmoniously with other communities. Mika looks downcast, the sense of the looming loss apparent in his face. "We will miss our island life, it is a very easygoing life here. Isolation has had its own security. Here there are no taxes, no police, no government, no mortgages ... we feel safe, we feel free here.

Now we know that our islands will soon be swept away by the sea and my people are frightened." Yet it is equally important to recognize these island communities' traditional resilience and mobility. Throughout history, islanders have moved due to various pressures, from tribal war to a lack of fresh water or fishing grounds, to the lure of Christian missions and urban life.

Climate change is just the latest challenge for islanders who know how to make the best of a bad situation and adapt - as they always have. The bright side Although island leaders are angry at the disregard industrial nations evince toward vulnerable island states, they do not wish to be seen as victims or refugees yet. Many are hoping to take advantage of the situation, sensing that billion-dollar funds are being launched by groups including the UN, the Commonwealth of Nations and the European Union.

Funds for climate change mitigation can be harnessed to achieve basic developmental needs and infrastructure. As Dr. Rolf Payet of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) said, "Solutions to climate change are also the solutions to global poverty." In fact, Pacific states are realizing that they may have a distinct advantage in the reordering of the global economy, as it moves away from a dependence on fossil fuels. Developing nations in equatorial zones have begun a concerted move toward a switch to renewable energy.

Nowhere is this more urgent than in Pacific island states, for two obvious reasons: first, because they are beginning to pay the price of climate change and need to set an example. The second reason is purely economic: The exorbitant price of fuel - likely only to keep escalating - and the abundance of renewable energy sources, such as coconut oil, the sun, the wind, and geothermal and hydro options, make the transition a no-brainer for the islands. According to most analysts, "peak" oil - the time when global petroleum extraction has reached its maximum - is already a reality, and another major oil shock and massive price spikes are not far off.

Meanwhile the capital costs of renewable-energy equipment - particularly for solar - continue to decline, making this more affordable for individuals and communities alike. Industrialized economies that run on petroleum are already feeling the pinch.

They will find it much harder to readjust to new energy sources and means of production than island states that do not have a large industrial sector, but whose economies are based largely on agriculture and tourism. Industrialized countries are increasingly looking to nuclear power to generate their baseload requirements, but this, too will prove a short-term solution, since there are finite amounts of uranium - enough to supply existing reactors for only another 50-60 years. They are merely putting off the inevitable need to harness renewables, and in the process are exposing themselves to the dangers of toxic nuclear waste (which has a half-life of 40,000 years), accidents and terrorism.

Industrialized nations need to undergo nothing less than a paradigm shift in terms of how they will need to retool their energy, transport and industrial sectors to face the challenges ahead. For island states, the transition can be much smoother as they move quickly into renewable energy power generation. Some countries are already leading the way. According to the Fiji Electricity Authority, 66 percent of that country's current power comes from renewable sources, mainly hydro power. The target is 90 percent by 2015.

Meanwhile, if Tuvalu implements its plans, it will become the world's first nation to rely exclusively on renewable energy. It hopes to use only solar power by 2020. In November, the Pacific nation of Vanuatu hosted an international conference of the "Climate Parliament," which included 30-plus MPs from small island states in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, to strategize before the looming Copenhagen summit. None of the MPs was optimistic about any concrete action emerging from the summit, since the biggest polluters, such as the U.S. and China, have so far offered only timid targets for reducing their own greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet the summit may see a lively, even fiery, confrontation between industrialized nations and those most vulnerable to rising seas. Opening the Vanuatu meeting, Secretary General Nick Dunlop, of New Zealand, threw down the gauntlet: "Island nations need to be more radical in confronting industrialized countries.

U.S. senators are not worried about small island states, they're worried about fulfilling their obligations to the oil and gas lobby that funds them. This is about national survival for some island states, it is the moral equivalent of war. It's time to get radical."

• Ben Bohane is an Australian writer and photographer who has been writing about the Pacific region for the past 20 years.

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