It is no secret that the Pacific Region is on the frontline of climate change. In a place like Kiribati, its effects on people’s immediate environment are highly visible and impact their daily lives in a variety of ways. Throughout the Pacific, climate change is heightening the intensity of extreme weather events, driving sea levels up and exacerbating droughts. If that’s not scary enough, if the world keeps burning fossil fuels as it currently intends to, this is just the beginning for Kiribati, and it can only get worse.
The release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to highlight the fact that society is vastly underprepared to deal with the increased risks posed by climate change impacts while the dangers of a warming planet are immediate and very human as in the case of the Pacific Islands.
On 23rd March I travelled to Kiribati to help facilitate a Climate Warrior Training for young people on the island of Tarawa. Needless to say, I was extremely excited. During my time as a climate activist, Kiribati has always been used as an example of a low-lying Pacific Island country grappling with the effects of climate change.
I remember thinking on the trip over from Fiji, how on a very personal level this trip to Kiribati would somehow further compel me to dedicate more of my energy towards the climate change movement. As a climate activist, I felt this experience would renew my outlook on why it’s important to build a climate change movement in the Pacific region.
At the Global Power Shift, a convergence to train climate leaders in Istanbul last year, I had met a young man named Toani Benson, who shared across some of his authentic truths as a Pacific Islander living in a country drastically affected by climate change. His sincerity in speaking, his truth about the impact of climate change on his people validated my belief that the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the safe limit of 350 parts per million (ppm), is without a doubt, imperative.
Greeted by Heat and a Blanket of Dust
As soon as I arrived in Kiribati, I instantly noticed two things. One, that the heat in Kiribati was unlike any temperature I had experienced before. It was an unbearable, uncomfortable type of heat.
And two, there was so much dust in the air. It was as if there was a layer of dust that blanketed everything on South Tarawa. From the traditional Kiribati style Maneabas (community halls), to the motorcycles and cars that frequented the lone single highway, to the fresh laundry that hung out on makeshift clotheslines left to dry under the scorching sun, and even in the corner stores packed to the brim with canned goods and Asian processed goods.
A girl in Temwaiku sits on what remains of a sea wall, constructed to protect her village from sea level rise
The dust created this atmosphere purely unique to South Tarawa.
Pelenise Alofa, long time 350 Kiribati member, said that this is something that she unfortunately had to learn to live with.
“It is getting hotter and more humid here in Kiribati, and it’s making life here more uncomfortable. We can never win. If it rains, the rain washes away our roads that are under construction, creating large potholes, which in turn makes traveling difficult. We crawl like snails on the roads trying to avoid these potholes. And then, when it stops raining and the fiery sun comes out, the rain dries up so fast that the whole place becomes dusty again.”
“All that dust that we inhale day in and day out, must be having some sort of impact on our health. Truth be told, there really is no winning.”
One of the very first things I did when I got into Kiribati was to take a stroll to this coastal village called Temwaiku. It is one of the most vulnerable villages south of Tarawa. What I saw there was devastating. The sea walls erected around that village to protect it from the sea had been torn down by the ever so ferocious, land-devouring waves. It was in such a state of despair, I had to catch myself from submitting to denial and remind myself that sadly, this is the reality of the people of Temwaiku and Kiribati.
A man in Temwaiku is rebuilding the seawall in front of his family home
A Generation of Climate Warriors Stand Up for the Pacific
Globally, 350.org is taking on the fossil fuel industry. It is high time for 350 Pacific to join in this fight too. If we sit back and let the fossil fuel industry further their economic aspirations, then it will be time to bid farewell to many of our beautiful Pacific Islands, along with their people, culture and traditional knowledge.
A large part of what shapes whether we stand a fighting chance in this battle against the giant fossil fuel industry, depends on how we build and wield the people power base we have as Pacific Islanders and as nations.
We need to build a generation of Climate Warriors trained to stand up for the Pacific and build on our authentic and inherent truths, strengths and aspirations.
We need to inspire innovativeness and creativity in our young climate warriors, we need to take advantage of new media, and place an emphasis ‐ like never before ‐ on the unity of our region connected by passion and the very ocean that poses a threat to our identity.
350 Kiribati Climate Warriors on the longest causeway in Kiribati
For me, the magical thing about this moment is that it is allowing us the opportunity to show the world that this is a fight based on regional cooperation and pure love for our island homes. We will not be fighting alone. Our allies are many, and collectively we are powerful.
We are at an interesting point in our history where we have the opportunity to stir up the warrior energy of 14 Pacific Island nations and territories to create a powerful moment that will echo in eternity, declaring “We are not drowning. We are fighting”.
We are developing the capacity of young people across the region to live up to that call and push the envelope a bit by taking our fight to confronting the fossil fuel industry.
This training is not just about raising awareness but an attempt to build the resilience of young people by getting them to understand climate truths and appreciate the heart of the global climate movement. We are giving these young leaders the chance to have a stake in the futures they so rightfully deserve. We are empowering them to be part of the solution and become effective agents of change within their own communities.
In the words of Pelenise, “This generation of young people are lucky. They have the means and opportunity to overcome ignorance. What we teach them doesn’t require them having money. We are teaching them traditional knowledge and how they can marry cultural understanding with modern day activism to make the change required. They can be empowered and in turn empower others.”
“I have hope for a future where the Kiribati people not only exist, but live – in every sense of the word.”
My time here in Kiribati has definitely blessed me with a fresh perspective on the climate movement. These trainings that 350 Pacific are carrying out across the region have helped expand the Pacific Climate Warrior base, build domestic and regional profiles of our in-country teams and allowed in-country coordinators to identify committed individuals who are ready to stand up and take ownership of the Pacific Climate Warrior action team.