Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Climate Refugees

Someone recently asked me if I believed in climate change. My immediate reaction was one of mild amusement. Climate change isn't something that you believe in, like the Easter bunny, nor is it something that will go away simply because we stop having faith in what the weatherman is telling us.

The problem, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, is that it's difficult to see our way out of a problem when we're unmistakably caught in the middle of it. And while some of us clearly acknowledge the connection between bad weather and our bad habits, for others all this extreme weather is just an interesting subject of conversation.

So, for those who still think that dire predictions about climate change are simply fabrications of a left-wing group of eco-terrorists attempting to rid the hard working middle classes of their SUVs, it's time to rethink that arrogant assumption. It’s here.

Last week, the world’s first climate change refugees made it official. The people of Carteret Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea have become the first people to be forced to completely abandon their homes because rising sea levels have poisoned their drinking water and crops.

At a press conference held in New York City, island resident Ursula Rakova made a plea on behalf of the 1,700 residents of Carteret. She spoke passionately about seeing her ancestral homeland disappear beneath the waves of the Pacific and called for global action.

“We don’t know much about science. All we know is that our shores are being eaten away by the Pacific,” she said. Over the next few years, the gentle Tuluun people will be forced to evacuate the Carteret Islands and its 1,000 year history.

"Climate change is not just about statistics. Climate change is not just about science,” she said. “Climate change is about human rights."

Rights that we have clearly been ignoring. To borrow from renowned climatologist Dr. Stephen Schneider, for several decades we have continued to conduct an uncontrolled experiment on our primary place of residence, despite the fact that we really didn't have a back-up plan if things went wrong. And now things are really starting to run amok.

"There's nothing normal anymore," said Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips, Philips. From here on it’s a brave new world, one that will be filled with every possible extreme imaginable. What’s happening to the Tuluun People is literally the tip of the rapidly melting icebergs.

We've known for more than a half a century that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were rising at unprecedented rates. Yet we have consistently ignored reasonable science that would have given us the time to take reasonable actions.

Roger Revelle discovered in 1957 that the long-standing argument that seawater would absorb any excess carbon dioxide produced globally was wrong. It was the opening shot in the climate change debates. He spent the remaining thirty-four years of his life trying to convince us of the dangers that lay ahead. We ignored him too, and instead chose to back the economic argument that reducing the burning of fossil fuels would somehow hurt our economy.

Well here's a lesson in linguistics. The word "economy" and "ecology" both come from the same Greek word, "oikos" meaning house. You can't have a healthy economy without a healthy ecology. They are inextricably linked – the former is content, the later context.

So while our world leaders bicker all the way to the global conference in Copenhagen in December, Ursula Rakova and her people will begin the painful process of relocating to the neighboring island of Bougainville.

“The island is getting very small now, people are preparing to go,” said Ursula. “We know that we are not alone in this fight about climate change. We know this is happening all over the world.”

Conservative estimates are that by 2050 there will be between 150 to 200 million climate refugees. Are we ready to believe yet?


For more on Ursula Rakova’s story, and the plight of the Tulunn people, visit www.oxfam.org.uk.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is being held in Copenhagen from December 7 to 18, 2009. For more information visit en.cop15.dk


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