My friend Elizabeth is from the South Pacific Island Kingdom of Tonga, an exotic locale long fixed in my memory with images of Polynesian paradise.
Tonga has sadly been in the news lately after an inter-island ferry sank on August 5 drowning over 70 people. It’s a huge tragedy in such a small place and it has saddened all Tongans around the world.
When I first met Elizabeth I had no idea that there were so many Tongan Americans living in large communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Dallas and other cities across the USA. Elizabeth is producing a documentary film on the history of Tongans immigrating to America and she knows a lot about the subject.
But surprisingly, a subject Elizabeth didn’t know a lot about is Tonga’s frontline role as a victim of the climate change crisis.
The same sea level rise that will be coming to our Southern California beaches, to the bays of San Francisco, to New York City, to Miami, to the Gulf Coast states, has already arrived in Tonga and has already forced some of Tonga’s South Pacific neighbors to abandon their homeland of the past three centuries.
I’m talking about the Carteret islands, which had already been inhabited for 1,000 years before European contact began in about 1880, and which are now vacant of its people.
Today all 3000 inhabitants of the Carteret Islands have been relocated as they become the first climate change refugees. And they didn’t just pick some other wonderful place that they wanted to relocate to either. They were “placed.”
While many folks rightfully care and cry for the climate change plight of beautiful polar bears and Emperor penguins, beautiful real life men, women and children have already had their world and way of life destroyed by global warming – climate change caused by the coal, oil and gasoline burned to power your consumer world and your comfortable way of life.
Mine too of course. I’m no exception.
And I see the very same fate for the men, women and children of our world here in California and across the United States coming much sooner than you think. There’s a lot more than just sea level rise coming our way.
It’s not my friend Elizabeth’s fault that she didn’t know a lot about all of this. (I say “didn’t” because she sure does now) It’s the fault of the mainstream media, the fossil fuel industries and our own carbon collaborative government from 2000-2008 – all of whom for their own indefensible, self-serving and unethical interests made sure the greatest crisis we have ever faced wasn’t treated that way.
Here’s what I learned that you need to know too…
Climate change is happening much faster and much more severely than expected just two years ago when the big UN IPCC report came out. Every single day for the past two years another convincing piece of science fact is reported that adds to the weight of proof that we are already past the tipping point for catastrophic climate change impacts.
While Elizabeth has had the pleasant task of teaching me about the history, culture and joys of Tonga I’ve had to play the role of harshing her mellow with today’s reality by teaching her about the future of Tonga.
But before you start feeling too much sorrow and painful empathy for these beautiful Polynesian island people who live halfway around the planet, you should save a healthy dose for the person you look at in the mirror, for your parents, and your partner, and for your own children and grandchildren –
Because the very same fate awaits all of you too.
It may be happening there first, but you will not escape no matter who you THINK you are…
Because no matter what your heritage or where your people immigrated from in the past, when it comes to climate change…
Today we are ALL Tongan.
Why We Tongans Are The Canary In The Coal Mine
Just as canaries with their sensitive respiratory systems were once used as underground warning systems for miners to run and escape when the atmosphere turned toxic and deadly, today the islands of the South Pacific with their sensitive environments are our above ground warning system for a toxic and deadly atmosphere from which we cannot run and escape.
As my friends at the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme put it:
Pacific islands are extremely vulnerable to climate change. The most substantial impacts of climate change include losses of coastal infrastructure and land, more intense cyclones and droughts, failure of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, losses of coral reefs and mangroves, and the spread of tropical diseases.
Long before sea level rise forces people to move off their island it contaminates the fresh water drinking supplies as well as the land that crops are grown on through storm surges that reach places surges never did before. When you read about ocean acidification, the destruction of coral habitats, dead zones and ocean pollution you’re reading about the big problems right in the backyard of my fellow Tongans. 80% of all Pacific Islanders live in or near coastal areas and rely on the ocean for their livelihoods.
Climate change’s impact on Tonga and her Pacific Island neighbors also includes extreme weather events like storms, cyclones, floods, droughts and heat waves.
Naturally all of the above has serious implications for the future development of all these Pacific islands. Right now tourism is the major industry for most of these small countries that draw visitors by the millions who are in search of the Polynesian paradise. Agriculture is another important industry throughout the region and it too will suffer badly from the impacts of climate change.
For some, like the people of the Carterets, it is already too late.
For Tonga there may still be enough time.
But only if we all wake up immediately and realize that right now is our moment.
And only if we understand that this isn’t someone else’s problem that we get to opt out of.
We’re all on the same island my friends.