Islands in Paris: New Climate Deal Gives Some Recognition to Humanity’s Truth BearersDecember 16, 2015 By Roger-Mark De Souza
The new climate deal coming out of Paris commits governments to hold the rise in average global temperatures to “well below” two degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. An important dimension of this agreement calls for subsequent work on limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees. This is an important win for islands and other low-lying countries, and for humanity.
Voice to the Islanders
I have been involved in efforts to promote islands as champions of climate resilience, and to note that as islanders, at this moment in time, on this particular issue, we have a chance to make our voices heard.
Last Friday at my office’s holiday party at the Wilson Center, I read an adaptation of a poem by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands exploring the fate of islands as they face climate change impacts. I modified the poem to include some Caribbean variations and what I was doing at the Wilson Center to move islands forward in this fight. Here’s a little of what I read…
Dear Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, thank you…Thank you for your poem to your daughter, Matafele Peinam, that seven-month-old sunrise of gummy smiles excited for morning walks past the lagoon…That lagoon that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise.
Matafele Peinam, some men say that one day that lagoon will devour you…They say it will gnaw at the shoreline…Chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees…Gulp down rows of your seawalls and…Crunch your island’s shattered bones…They say you, your daughter, and your granddaughter too will wander rootless with only a passport to call home.
Dear Matafele Peinam, don’t cry. Your mommy promises you no one will come and devour you…No greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas…No backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals…No blindfolded bureaucracies gonna push this mother ocean over the edge…No one’s drowning, no one’s moving…No one’s losing…No one’s losing their homeland no one’s gonna become a climate change refugee. Or should I say no one else.
To the Carteret islanders of Papua New Guinea and to the Taro islanders of Fiji, I take this moment to apologize to you…We are drawing the line here because baby we are going to fight…Your mommy, daddy, bubu, jimma, your country, and your president too…We will all fight, even though there are those hidden behind platinum titles who like to pretend that we don’t exist.
That the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Maldives, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and floods of Pakistan, Algeria, and Colombia, and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidal waves didn’t exist…Even in the Caribbean where I come from.”
Power Dynamics and “1.5 to Stay Alive”
I remember just a few months ago conducting technical training for the various ministerial focal points charged with implementing Jamaica’s climate change strategy – environment, finance, health, tourism, etc. We discussed the importance of small-island states moving ahead with a negotiating position of 1.5 degrees as they prepared for the Paris climate talks. In fact, recently under the motto “1.5 to Stay Alive,” artists, artistes, media workers, civil society organizations, and government officials have worked together to raise awareness of the importance of the Paris negotiations and of their major implications for the Caribbean.
As I thought about these discussions with my Jamaican counterparts, I heard in my mind the words from a discussion just a few days prior with a former minister of the environment from a European powerhouse who quickly dismissed the islands as having no power in international negotiations. He told me that they would never make a difference in Paris.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not blinded to the fact that as islanders we are still behind on the power curve, we will still be subjected to the vagaries of being pawns on an international chess board. But the visibility and the power of storytelling, of potential invisibility, of being the harbinger of humanity and the canary in the coal mine is not one to be missed or overlooked.
“The talks in Paris were barely getting underway last week when representatives from Antigua and Barbuda made a series of impassioned pleas to the nations gathered to negotiate a climate treaty….”
“‘The small guys have managed to push the big guys, and that is a big story,’ Monica Araya, founder and executive director of the Costa Rican nongovernmental organization Nivela and special adviser to the Climate Vulnerable Forum, said…”
We Are More Than One Agreement
Indeed, as noted by others, similar appeals have been made for years, but in Paris the islanders acquired new allies: African nations, Europeans, even some Americans joined their call.
As we review the results from Paris and the role that islands played therein, some have noted the result was a matter of science catching up (progress in understanding the difference between a 1.5 and 2 degree warming). Others say it was a question of morality, climate justice, and seeing climate change as a threat to human wellbeing and humanity overall (doing what’s right for those who are disproportionately affected in a city where innocents were recently the victims of terrorist attacks). Still others attribute it to sophisticated coalition building. It’s probably some combination of all of the above.
But it’s clear that at this moment in time, on this particular issue, islanders’ voices and witness gained some international recognition and a glimmer of hope.
Of course, the test is in the implementation.
I, for the moment, will suspend criticism and focus on hope, because as I read out loud to my colleagues at our holiday party last week, echoing the collective voices of my island brethren, of the Caribbean artists, of the “1.5 to Stay Alive” campaign, and of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and many others…
We are more than just one conversation
More than any one person
More than our convening power
More than our bipartisan neutrality
More than a silo buster
More than sustainability and resilience, loss and damage, renewable energy, financing, environmental security
More than a Paris under attack by terrorists,
More than a Paris besieged with climate negotiators
More than a beacon in the darkness
More than one landmark global climate change agreement
We are spreading the word
And there are thousands out on the street
Marching with signs hand in hand
Chanting for change now
As your momma said, they’re marching for you,
They’re marching for us
Because we deserve to do more than just survive
We deserve to thrive
Yes Matafele Peinam,
You are eyes heavy with drowsy weight
So just close those eyes, and sleep,
Sleep in peace because
We, your mommy, daddy, bubu, jimma, your country, and your president too
Because we your fellow islanders from the Caribbean and beyond
Because we, the global collective voice,
We won’t let you down
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a poet and activist from the Marshall Islands. Bearing witness at the front lines of various activist movements, her writing highlights a number of key issues including the impending threats of climate change. Her poem, “Matafele Peinam,” is a message to her daughter.