Published on Women in the World
With the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference under way, Pelenise Alofa is gearing up for the latest opportunity to save her homeland, Kiribati.
Kiribati, an island nation in the South Pacific, is one of eight low-lying island nations faced with an existential threat from global warming, due to the rising tides of climate change. Alofa, a longtime grassroots organizer and National Coordinator for Kiribati’s Climate Action Network (KiriCAN), has long participated in the slow-moving politics of the U.N. climate negotiations, but she says, this time, the Pacific islanders are not taking no for an answer.
This year’s conference, known as COP23, is taking place in Bonn, Germany, and being presided over by the Pacific Island nation of Fiji. Alofa and her colleagues are referring to the COP23 as the “Pacific COP,” adding that all the low-lying Pacific island nations like Kiribati are ready to lead the world on climate action and fight for their countries’ survival.
“It feels like David versus Goliath — the Pacific is so young and vulnerable, and of course, when it’s finally our turn to host the COP, the biggest nation in the world has turned its back on us,” Alofa says via Skype from her home in Kiribati, referring to President Donald Trump’s June announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. “But we are eager to show that we are serious and that, the Pacific people, the people most affected by and vulnerable to climate change, can contribute and should lead the world in this fight.”
Challenges in Kiribati
Kiribati, a country of 33 coral atolls strung across the equator, floats in the tight embrace of the Pacific Ocean on all sides. Most of the land is less than three meters above sea level, making its land and people extremely vulnerable to rising sea-levels. Parts of many of its atolls have already been submerged by seawater, and it is predicted by a U.N. report that Kiribati will be among the first nations to be rendered completely uninhabitable from climate change, as early as 2050.
In recent years, Alofa says, the climate-related catastrophes have accelerated in pace and severity. Kiribati regularly suffers from extreme weather events, from King Tides that penetrate the capitol’s fresh water supply and flood its cities and markets, to torrential rains, like those stirred up by Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 hurricane that battered the South Pacific in 2015. Strong winds, devastating flooding, and monster hurricanes have become a terrifying part of daily life for the I-Kiribati people.
“Even a ripple from a big cyclone is something that we can’t stand,” Alofa explains. “In 2017, we’ve seen more of this danger, and we are braced for the storms and tides that lie ahead.”
As the national coordinator of KiriCAN, an Kiribati-based environmental justice organization, Alofa confronts these challenges head-on through grassroots organizing across Kiribati’s islands. For years, KiriCAN has mobilized a coalition of I-Kiribati activists, primarily women and youth-groups, to lead their communities on issues of environmental justice.
The KiriCan network of I-Kiribati volunteers provide rapid-response services to their communities facing danger or property damage from the storms, while also engaging in localized awareness and lobbying efforts. At the international level, KiriCAN has enlisted partners from across the globe to finance adaptation programs and provide technical expertise to their I-Kiribati counterparts on the ground.
These efforts also include student-to-student outreach, partnering the I-Kiribati youth with European universities. The initiatives range from properly documenting Kiribati’s rich history and traditions to establishing localized waste management systems.
“We’re always trying to fill the gap between community and government,” Alofa says proudly. “We’re really a network so we try to get people involved in any way that they can contribute. We need all hands on deck!”
Turning the tide
Alofa has traveled far beyond the islands of the Pacific in her struggle for climate justice. In recent years, she has testified to U.N. bodies and led indigenous contingents at historic citizen-led events, like the People’s Climate March in New York City. In 2015, she illustrated her people’s plight for an audience of 2,500 allies at the Women in the World Summit.
Sharing a stage with Native Alaskan Patricia Cochran, whose region endures similar devastation as well as Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, Alofa teared up when she spoke of the I-Kiribati people made homeless from climate change and described stories of women rebuilding simple sandbag seawalls in fear of the next big wave sweeping their families out to sea.
“And that’s the life of our people. Disaster comes, and they continue to live the same way,” concluded Alofa, wiping her eyes.
Message to Trump
Aside from KiriCAN’s efforts and Alofa’s tireless advocacy, the future of Kiribati relies on worldwide collaboration — a dependency recently complicated by Trump’s threat of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.
Alofa says she is heartbroken that Trump denied America’s role in fighting climate change. She added that none of the climate agreements have been strict enough to save her country, but that “every step is a small victory for the people and planet, and Trump just took a giant leap backwards.”
“Just when we finally reached this point of global consensus, he rips a hole in the entire negotiation,” Alofa says, distraught. “So there’s no future for Kiribati? For all of us? Everything is just black. If America doesn’t lead, we’re not getting anywhere. It has to be America.”
Alofa claims the real motive for Trump’s climate change denial is his unwillingness to evolve America’s economic and industrial development. “The U.S. wants to grow, we all want to grow, but he’s putting short-term economic gains before the survival of the entire planet … When America already has the technological solutions!”
Following the natural disasters in the U.S. this fall, Alofa hopes Trump has been awakened to the dire impacts of climate change, reminded that these disasters affect not only the small Pacific islands, but his constituents as well.
“My heart breaks when I see the images of [the natural disasters in] the United States because we know how frightening these climate disasters can be, how much they hurt your homes and communities,” Alofa reflects, adding that “all Pacific islanders stand in solidarity with the American families and communities impacted by these devastating hurricanes.”
Intimidated and motivated by the great power of the U.S., Alofa invites the American Delegation and even President Trump to meet with the Pacific Delegation at the COP23. While she outlines the many ways the U.S. could make a difference in the futures of countries like Kiribati — from contributing technology, expertise and funding to adaptation and reclamations efforts on the islands, she insists Kiribati and the Pacific Islanders have much to offer the international community.
“In the Pacific, we have done so much with such few resources. And many of these efforts can be scaled or applied at low cost to many other developing countries around the world,” Alofa describes. “These victories, combined with the developed world’s innovations — imagine! Let’s let Kiribati be a model for the world of sustainable development.”
Armed with this energy, vision, and solidarity with communities impacted by climate change around the globe, Alofa and other delegations from the Pacific and other frontline nations will face Goliath this month. Despite the odds, Alofa is as determined as she is inspired: this is the Pacific’s COP.
“Our people and our culture deserve to be saved, preserved in their homeland and waters where they’ve lived forever,” Alofa concludes. “I really believe in the human spirit, that everyone in their heart has the space for compassion and love for other people. We will approach the COP23 with faith in the strength of international solidarity with these good people.”