“Will you let us into the lifeboat, or will you push us away so we don’t clutter up your space?”: Stories from COP 23

The flowers at the Talanoa Space

There was something magical about the Fiji Pavilion at this year’s United Nations conference on climate change in Bonn. As an annual international conference, the COP (Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change) brings together delegates from each country in the world. The main conference hall resembled the international terminal of a massive airport, with people in indigenous dress and wool coats hustling back and forth to their next meeting. In the middle of the stress and self-importance, stepping into the Fiji Pavilion was like entering another world. Bright flowers and mosses lined the walls of the meeting space and perfumed the air. All meetings were held on cushions on the floor, which brought everyone down to the same level. As a Fijian delegate told me, each aspect of the Fiji conference area was designed to undermine hierarchy and bring people together on a human level.

Fiji held the Presidency this year, which meant that they played a more high-profile role in setting the tone of the conference. Fiji’s goal was to speak for the rights of small island states and developing nations, and to prioritize what in UN jargon is referred to as “loss and damage” — funding to address the loss and damage from climate change which is already occurring. Loss and damage can be considered a form of reparations to countries in the Global South which did almost nothing to cause climate change, yet are suffering the most damage from it effects.

Many of the presentations were strictly technical, focusing on infrastructural changes required to reduce emissions. But in the talks about climate-induced migration and displacement, the tone was radically different. Here, the human suffering came to the fore. Panelists did not speak in optimistic terms on how to reduce future emissions — for many of the countries represented in the room, such as Bangladesh and many small island states, it is already too late. Even if all the countries of the world follow through on the Paris Agreement, it will not be enough to keep warming below two degrees Celsius. And recent studies show that sea level will rise by about 2.3 meters (7 feet) for every one degree of warming. Islands like Kiribati, which are only 6 feet above sea level, will be submerged.

Representatives of the Norwegian Refugee Council cited statistics on displacement: in the last two years, 40 million people have been displaced by natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, such as droughts and floods. These statistics do not include the many people displaced by the “slow-onset” natural disasters of climate change, such as prolonged drought and gradual sea level rise. In 2016, 26.9 million people became were displaced by “sudden-onset” natural disasters, as compared to 6.9 million displaced by war. Twenty-six million people became destitute. They lost their home, all their possessions, and came back to the ruins of their homes and villages, if they were ever able to come at all.

After citing his statistics, the Norwegian representative passed the microphone to His Excellency Mr. Anote Tong, former prime minster of Kiribati. Mr. Tong spoke movingly both about his country’s future: “When I watch my grandchildren play, I ask myself where they will end up. Because it won’t be Kiribati. There will be no Kiribati.” To my left and to my right, I was surrounded by solemn Pacific Islanders. Many of them wore shirts from 350.org Pacific which said “we are not drowning, we are fighting”. These experts are talking to people who know that they will one day become refugees. Their islands will be underwater within the next thirty years, if the projected warming continues. The place they grew up, where their ancestors lived and died, the culture they were born into — it is all going under. And for what? The Fijians did almost nothing to cause the problem. Small islands combined are less than 1% of total global emissions. Yet almost no money has gone into UN funds for climate-change adaptation and mitigation, such as the the Green Climate Fund.And they are now being told that if they prepare, they will be lucky and can “migrate with dignity.”

As a lifelong environmentalist, I thought that I cared about climate change more than the average person. After all, I decided to dedicate my life to environmental life’s work and I’m currently getting my master’s in environmental studies. But when I read about sea level change affecting small island countries, I took a relatively callous and utilitarian view, thinking “Yes, it’s sad, but it’s a relatively small population.” It wasn’t until I was actually sitting in a room and looking into the faces of the people who were about to become refugees that I felt the deep injustice and degree of human suffering that climate change is already causing.

The Pacific Islanders are among the first wave of people to lose their homes to climate change. Their vulnerability makes them the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Soon, hundreds of millions of people will be on the move. The climate refugee is the face of the next century. As Mr. Tong says, “this will be a test of human values. Will you let us into the lifeboat or will you push us away?”