Photo: George Steinmetz

Photo: George Steinmetz

With our upcoming event on April 9th, Rising Waters: The Impact on Humanity, W2O is researching island nations and their struggles for acknowledgment and help regarding their plight of losing their homeland and livelihood as a result of rising seas.  How do we, living so far away from most of these coastal communities, help raise awareness that carbon emissions have directly affected the most vulnerable populations?

The topic of sea level rise is gaining momentum in the press and being discussed across the globe. Cities everywhere are making sea level rise adaptation strategies.  The Guardian has announced that it “is embarking on a major series of articles on the climate crisis and how humanity can solve it. In the first, an extract taken from the introduction to THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING by Naomi Klein, the author argues that if we treat climate change as the crisis it is, we don’t just have the potential to avert disaster but could improve society in the process…”

“We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. Major cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas, and there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts…There are ways of preventing this grim future, or at least making it a lot less dire. But the catch is that these also involve changing everything. For us high consumers, it involves changing how we live, how our economies function, even the stories we tell about our place on earth. The good news is that many of these changes are distinctly uncatastrophic. Many are downright exciting.”

Over the winter break, W2O was fortunate to have a terrific intern game to learn more about how W2O works and what messages we use to communicate protecting our  oceans. We asked intern Lizzie Savage to choose an island that is in eminent danger from encroaching seas and give us a sense of the challenges that these communities face. With gratitude to Lizzie, we have this profile to share:

The small island nation of Tuvalu, located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia, was once known for its white sandy beaches, and expansive coral reefs. However, in the past decade or so, Tuvalu has become more popularly known as one of the many small island countries whose population risks extinction due to sea level rise.  Tuvalu has been recognized as highly “vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, including “coastal erosion, flooding and inundation, increasing salinity of fresh ground-water supplies, destruction of primary sources of subsistence, and destruction of personal and community property.”  Each one of these impacts contributes to making life on Tuvalu more difficult and increasingly uninhabitable.

No matter the circumstance, having to leave the life you know and love in your home country for a new and daunting life somewhere else is not easy. Although the living situation in Tuvalu has become increasingly burdensome and unsafe, inhabitants have a hard time bearing the thought of leaving, and for good reason. “We don’t want to leave this place. We don’t want to leave, it’s our land, our God given land, it is our culture, we can’t leave. People won’t leave until the very last minute,” explained Paani Laupepa, the former assistant secretary of Tuvalu’s Ministry of Natural Resources.  Tuvaluans are faced with extreme hardships, such as frequent flooding that reaches to the middle of the island destroying crops and trees, or salt water seeping through holes in the ground creating puddles one to two feet deep which often surround homes and offices. Living a life in Tuvalu is not easy, but for many it is their home, and home is not something you easily give up on. Generations upon generations have built their lives, and endless memories in Tuvalu and have planned to continue doing so for generations to come. The sad truth though, is that if nothing is done to prevent further sea level rise, the island nation of Tuvalu will not be around long enough to be a home for future generations.

As climate change poses threat to the lives of Tuvaluans, some seek a life elsewhere. For most, this elsewhere is New Zealand. “New Zealand has agreed to welcome 75 immigrants (from Tuvalu) annually,” assuming that the they are of good standing, have basic English skills, are in good health, under 45 years old and have a job offer in New Zealand. This gesture, however, will only make a small dent for the nation of Tuvalu, whose population is nearing 10,000 people. “In 2001, the Australian government was asked to consider accepting migrants from Tuvalu. It refused to commit to [the] request.”  In order to ensure the survival of this small nation, and others among it, larger and more powerful countries will have to step up and be open to sharing their communities with those who are being displaced from their own.
New Zealand recently granted residency to a Tuvaluan family who claimed that if they were to return to their lives in Tuvalu they would be putting themselves at risk. The family had been living illegally in New Zealand for many years while simultaneously trying to gain work visas and status as refugees.  Gaining residency in New Zealand is extremely difficult because the International Refugee Convention does not consider those who suffer as a result of climate change to be refugees. The Convention “doesn’t provide an open ticket for people from all the places that are impacted by climate change. It’s still a very stringent test and it requires exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian nature.”  The Tuvaluan family who gained residency in New Zealand was the first to do so on humanitarian grounds.
Although there is only one success story in regards to humanitarian based residency appeals, it represents hope for more similar stories of its kind in the future. As many small island nations continue to suffer as a result of climate change, more and more families and individuals will begin to seek residency elsewhere.  In order for these nations to find safety and a new home, the developed nations of the world must open up both their hearts and their borders to the ever-growing number of climate change refugees.