Postcards from the frontlines of climate change - ABC News

Australia has some 16 Pacific Island neighbours — some with a landmass a millionth our size — who unanimously declare climate change the “single greatest threat” to the region.

To quickly get a sense why: many of these nations are isolated and vulnerable, spread across hundreds of atolls, often less than a metre above sea level, and home to some of the most culturally rich, biodiverse ecosystems. For context, the NSW city of Lismore is up to 50 times the size of some of them.

For decades they’ve been pleading for action — as across the Pacific, climate change is not a hypothetical future event, it’s already happening, with relocations and legal measures to protect sovereignty already underway.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns the window for action is rapidly closing — here’s a record of what that looks like on the frontlines, and what those that live there have been trying to tell us.*

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Local Mayor John Drollet in 2021: “We don’t want to be the first French eco refugees, we want our children to keep on living on the land of their ancestors.” 

Climate Action Network project manager Ralph Spring in 2022: “The mentality here is we know it’s going to happen sooner or later — we’re going to lose this place to climate change.” 

Foreign Affairs Officer Josh Mitchell in 2018: “If we lose this land does that mean we lose the maritime jurisdiction generated from it? That’s the question we’re looking at.”

Former premier Toke Talagi in 2008: “We talk about climate change as if it’s a concept, happening somewhere else. Climate change has already impacted our people — now.”

Former prime minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi in 2018: “We all know the problem, the solutions – all that is left would be some courage to tell people there is certainty of disaster.”

Civil Society leader Siotame Drew Havea in 2022: “[Sea level rises] are not like cyclones where you lose half a house … with this, you lose everything.”

Foreign Minister Simon Kofe in 2021: “We’re imagining a worst-case scenario where we’re forced to relocate — we’re looking at avenues to retain recognition as a state under international law.” [The area pictured was once dry land].

Eight-year-old student Aiyanna Nacewa in 2021: “When the cyclone hit, I was scared because I thought lightning could hit our house and make a hole through the roof.”

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Former foreign minister Tony de Brum in 2014: “There may be even more problems later trying to fix what damage is done now if we do not make the corrections necessary.”

NIWA hazard analyst Shaun Williams in 2022: “A large portion of the population are looking to be within inundation zones in the next few decades, based on modelling of sea level rise scenarios ranging from 0.1 to 2 metres.”

Nine-year-old local Tanya Watsivi McGarry in 2021: “We were all squashed in the bathroom. We could hear glass shattering, the water came up, I was very scared. I don’t want to grow up in a world where there’s more climate change.”

Congress President Louis Mapou in 2021: “From time immemorial, our living environment in the Pacific is linked to the ocean, our islands and our biodiversity.”

Sixteen-year-old Shannon Sogavare in 2021: “Sad thing is I’ll never get to see the whole island where my father [prime minister] grew up – the middle part is now fully covered leaving two islands.” 

President David Panuelo in 2021: “The insecurity means mass migration, brain drain … most strongly shown through enrolment rates [as low as 14 students in some schools].”

Photographer Darren James in 2018: “People have lived there for more than 200 years. Climate change and other issues have forced them to consider relocation, and many have done so.”

President Surangel Whipps Jr in 2022: “We should not be paralysed by the magnitude of the problem. It’s unavoidable. But that’s the reality we live in as island states.”

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Unlike neighbouring continental giants, Pacific Island countries are isolated and surrounded by vast ocean, without the geographical, environmental, or financial security a large, wealthy landmass provides.

Many fear they are one volcanic eruption, one cyclone, or a minor sea level rise away from total uninhabitability.

The consequences of which are not only the loss of sovereignty and refugee crises, but the loss of one of the most culturally diverse, vibrant and important regions of the world — home to hundreds of unique languages, indigenous cultures, and endemic flora and fauna.

For Pacific Island nations, climate change is not a debatable future concern open to interpretation, but a present reality that boils down to one fundamental question: can we afford to entertain the possibility that climate change is not an urgent existential threat, and be wrong?

Also available in: Tok Pisin, Chinese & Indonesian


*Editor’s Note: The information gathered for this story encompasses 20 years of ABC reporting on climate change in the Pacific presented against the latest research and statements from leading research bodies. Some interviews required the assistance of translators and interpreters, and have been edited and paraphrased for clarity and context.

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