NZ needs to help Pacific ‘little brother’ on climate, says Tuvalu cleric


Report by Pacific Media Centre

Tuvalu king tide

Tuvalu is in grave danger of completely disappearing in the next 30 years, but New Zealand is turning a blind eye, according to the country’s Reverend Tafue Lusama. Asia-Pacific Journalism reports.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Chelsea Armitage

New Zealand has been told it’s not doing enough to help its “little brother” Tuvalu to fight climate change, in a desperate call to action.

Tuvalu’s Reverend Tafue Lusama is currently on a tour of New Zealand’s main centres in an effort to highlight the urgency of tackling climate change effects in the Pacific.

He is calling for New Zealand – which he refers to as “Tuvalu’s big brother” – to take the lead in climate change action and help to save the sinking country.

“I’ve always regarded New Zealand as Tuvalu’s big brother,” Rev Lusama said in his address at the Love Your Neighbour event earlier this month, which was co-ordinated by Oxfam.

“But we have been waiting and listening to hear what our big brother will do for us as we suffer these consequences of climate change.”

The reverend, who is also the founder of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, said he believes New Zealand could be doing “far better” than its current efforts, not only to mitigate climate change effects, but also implement long-term emission strategies.

A 2012 Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA) report predicted many negative impacts of climate change on Tuvalu over the coming years, including depletion of freshwater supplies, an increase in coastal flooding, erosion, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, ocean patterns and rising sea levels.

At its highest point, Tuvalu sits four metres above sea level and is facing these effects today, only three years on from the PIRCA report.

The nation of 11,000 inhabitants has already watched at least three of its islands disappear, with no sign of slowing down unless significant climate action is taken globally.

WWF senior campaigner Alex Smith said that while Tuvalu looked to New Zealand for help, the nation was part of a “small gang” of developed countries which had yet to commit to climate targets and reduced emission schemes – in fact, he claimed New Zealand’s emissions were rising.

“We’re a regional leader and at the moment we’re blocking progress in international negotiations and letting down our neighbours,” said Smith.

The director of environmental studies at Victoria University, Ralph Chapman, said New Zealand had been running a “reactive” policy position on climate change and the Pacific rather than thinking of long-term solutions.

“It’s not unusual for this government. It has been really unwilling to take a forward-looking view on climate change.

“The net impact on vulnerable Pacific Islands like Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tuvalu – particularly the low-lying ones – is pretty clear. What’s not clear is that the government is doing enough to mitigate climate change, which would be my main concern, or to address the impacts of climate change.”

Trish Tupou, a postgraduate student in Auckland University’s Pacific Studies programme, spoke at the event about how easy it was to feel overwhelmed and powerless living in New Zealand.

“However, part of our privileges of living here in New Zealand is being able to be vocal on these issues of land erosion, rising sea levels and cyclones.”

‘Not an option’
Suggestions of relocating Tuvalu’s population are plentiful, but Rev Lusama said evacuating Tuvalu isn’t an option in the short-term.

“Relocation to us carries a lot of risks. It means we have to throw in the towel. If we relocate, we put our identity in question, because you cannot create a country within another country.

You cannot create a Tuvalu within New Zealand or Australia or anywhere else,” he said.

Tuvalu has been told it only has 30 years until it sinks. When the time comes, Rev Lusama said the country won’t go down without a fight, in an effort to stop other countries suffering the same fate.

“Even if Tuvalu goes down tomorrow, we will still keep fighting. We don’t want to go down for nothing, because if we do nothing now, then Tuvalu goes down, Kiribati the next day, and Bangladesh the following day.

“Then millions of people will be homeless, and that will create a big problem for our Earth.”

But Rev Lusama is not oblivious to the reality of the situation. He said his people, when presented with no other option but to leave Tuvalu, will prefer to be called “forced climate migrants” rather than “climate refugees”.

“It’s always good to migrate, to go somewhere else, as long as there is somewhere you can go back to and point at and say ‘I belong to that space’,” said Rev Lusama.

“But what happens when you are relocated, and then you have no space to refer to? We will become roaming homeless people on the face of the planet. I don’t want my children, my grandchildren, to carry that identity with them.”

WWF’s Alex Smith said that where possible, New Zealand needed to help make sure that Pacific communities could stay on the islands where they have lived for thousands of years.

“Unfortunately in some cases that’s not possible, but we really need to start taking action where we can, to save some of the countries that can still be saved.”

Victoria University’s director of environmental studies Ralph Chapman said “Mr [John] Key in particular has been trying to create the impression this was something we could put off for a decade or two, but I think the evidence is abundantly clear now that the impacts are already starting to affect the Pacific Islands quite dramatically.”

Lobby for change
Tupou, who is also a Green Party nominee for Manurewa, believes part of the solution lies in New Zealanders rallying Australasian banks to pull out of fossil fuel investments.

“Our banks are funding the fossil fuel projects that are sinking the Pacific. As customers, our banks care about what we have to say and we have the power to stop them,” said Tupou.

Since 2008, four Australian banks that dominate New Zealand’s banking – Westpac, Commonwealth, National Australia Bank and Australia New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) – have loaned over $20 billion to new coal and gas projects in Australia and New Zealand, said Tupou.

“These investments threaten our climate and precious ecosystems. At the same time, these banks also have strong sustainability policies, but they are literally funding climate change and contributing to the impacts of climate change on our Pacific people.”

Tupou noted that none of New Zealand’s locally owned banks have any fossil fuel investments – yet.

Rev Tafue Lusama’s closing address referred to climate change effects in the Pacific as an injustice.

“We live very sustainable lifestyles, taking very good care of our environment and our surroundings.

“I always look at this as a punishment of the innocent, we are being punished for being innocent.”

Chelsea Armitage is a postgraduate student journalist at AUT University.

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The Pacific Media Centre at Auckland University of Technology also collaborates with other Asia-Pacific media centres engaged in research and cultural production and develops cultural and research publications, building on the success of the peer-reviewed publication Pacific Journalism Review, media freedom project Pacific Media Watch and current affairs website Asia Pacific Report.