29 November 2009

7 Days to Copenhagen - Compassion for the Environmental Refugees

Beautiful photo by Nattu

You know how our hearts have been going out to the people who have to evacuate their homes because of wildfires or floods? We feel particularly anguished for those who lose their houses in these blazes or inundations, which don't respect the human territory staked out in their path.

Could we perhaps reach out our compassion a bit further, to those living in the Carteret Islands, for example, a coral atoll off the coast of Papua New Guinea? These islanders are literally losing their homeland, taken by the sea — first through salination and tidal destruction of their gardens, and now through submersion of their islands.

Though some commentators are calling this the first evacuation of an entire people because of climate change, the deniers and skeptics are out in full force, saying the islands are disappearing because of tectonic movement or isostatic adjustments of the seafloor. But the cause doesn't matter; their evacuation remains an environmental tragedy for these islanders, and they deserve our compassion.

I hope it's not just because I'm an islander myself, living off the west coast of Canada, that I can relate to what these people are experiencing. It is said that they have lived on their atoll for over 1000 years — long enough to feel rather attached to it, I would think. (I've been here 11 years, and I'm feeling rather attached.) Imagine having to pick up a whole people and resettle them in a new place. I don't think we'd be too happy about it. There but for the grace of the Universe....

I think we'd better start asking our governments what their environmental refugee policies are going to be. Evacuations, migrations, shifts, conflicts are starting to happen in Pacific Islands and African nations and low-lying countries like Bangladesh. Are we going to start accepting climate refugees in our nice comfy countries? (With our current winters, I'm not sure they'd want to come!) Are we going to help out financially, as we promised to do when we signed onto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992? We have to pose these questions in order to get our policy makers thinking about them.

Meantime, my heart goes out to the Tuluun people of the Carteret Islands.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?