by Monika Skadborg
First, healthy crying. Then, attacking the climate crisis from all angles
The climate crisis is a wicked problem. It is set on course to kill a whole lot of people according to the WHO. And I am just little me, so what can I do about it? Cry? Become a lobbyist? Join the climate strikers? I chose to do all of the above. Attending the Oxford School of Climate Change as well as the webinars from Oxford Climate Society has helped me do better at all three.
The hole in the ozone layer was one thing. An uplifting story in a way, because it is the best example of all of humanity coming together against a global deadly problem and solving it by mutual commitment and trust. I think about that whenever I’m done crying and need some hope to get back to work. But saving the ozone layer only took phasing out a handful of gasses, and their alternatives weren’t even that much more expensive. Climate change is much trickier because the root causes are woven into the fabric of every part of our society. From what we eat to how we move around and how we build the buildings we live in. It seems impossible to purchase anything without getting a little bit of climate change with you in the basket. Everything is so deeply wrong, it’s hard to even think about. But we must think about it almost every day, since the system is everyone’s problem.
When something is everyone’s problem it often becomes no-one’s problem. My “green” little country causes the emission of somewhere around 0.2 % of the world’s greenhouse gasses. So, we barely matter, right? At least, as a climate activist I’m constantly told that by those who are against speeding up our climate action. They tend to forget we are also less than 0.1 % of the world’s population. We are, globally speaking, nothing more than a city. We are also among the richest, even I with my little student grant. Still, we act like we have a right to keep polluting this much, even though it literally kills other people?
But if we try not to overspend on the climate budget, someone else just will. We can’t expect any other country to change their ways, so trying to set a good example is just a waste of time and will lead those dirty foreigners to win more market shares. At least, that is our excuse to keep pushing oil, conventional concrete, and heart attack inducing amounts of bacon and butter onto the world market. We sell the greenest meat, right? At least if you forget about the amount of other people’s forest we pay for the destruction of, just to keep our pigs-per-area high and our bioenergy plants hot. By that same logic, I sometimes briefly consider becoming a heroin pusher. That must be morally solid. Because otherwise someone else will do it, and our money has to come from somewhere, right?
That is obviously total nonsense. So, what to do about the fact that our leaders act like it is true? First, some healthy crying of course. Because honestly, if you are not grieving the mass destruction we are already causing, you are not paying enough attention. Then, anger. Loads of well-deserved anger at all the folks who have more power than me but choose not to act. Then, action. I enrolled to become an environmental engineer. I really love my field of studies, but it takes 5 years, or 10.5 in my case with all those leaves of absence to do full-time NGO work. And even if I eventually get really good at science, it seems like our leaders do not care all too much about that. So, I became an activist. Demonstrations of the legal and maybe not totally legal kind. Letters to politicians and newspapers. Endless volunteer hours in green organisations or in the green parts of broader organisations. Workshops with business leaders and with school children. Speeches at the United Nations and minute taking in the global youth constituency of the UNFCCC. There is always much energy wasted on infighting over which types of actions are most effective. To me, it seems like we only ever get those in power to make changes, when we take all these actions at the same time and keep pushing relentlessly from all angles. Since everything is so wrong, every change that makes it slightly less wrong is worth something, from my diet to the free time I invest in shouting at the government.
My journey let me experience, and come to love, the diversity in youth organisations' different ways of contributing to solving the climate crisis. I started out in students' unions during the years where they became increasingly aware of their own role in solving this challenge. Then I became a youth delegate to the UN, after which I convinced the climate minister in my country to set up an advisory body for getting young people's input into the climate ministry. I have been chairing that body for two years, doing the boring paperwork part of empowering youth. I am now a board member of the European Youth Forum, representing over 100 different organisations such as youth councils, scouts, political youth parties and many others. I find it uplifting to see how they each contribute in their own ways to a sustainable future. This is the type of "attacking the problem from all angles" thinking I believe we need. And it is accelerating all around, hopefully even faster than climate change is. That keeps me coming to work.
Attending the Oxford School of Climate Change has been such a great help in my work. Since every sector needs to change, it is uplifting to see that every kind of science can do their part to help. Listening to statisticians, economists and philosophers is healthy for an engineer, and I promise to recommend it to my peers. Coming to the Oxford Climate Society webinars and diving a bit into the stories of indigenous activists fighting multiple layers of oppression while sacrificing much more to fight climate change than I have, was a healthy reminder. I, as a relatively privileged European, must keep fighting to ensure that we do better and stop screwing over the rest of the world. I hope working on the international dialogue and empowerment of youth organisations can help at least a little bit, as one of the many different angles we must keep pushing from.
by Eilidh Roberts (she/her)
Photo credit to World Bank Group
Hope, optimism and brightness are not words one would often associate with the climate crisis.
However, Emmanuella Onyeka, an active and forward-thinking Nigerian understands that to garner real change, climate-optimism is the only way forward. Emmanuella became involved in climate action through her university’s Society of Petroleum Engineers (for which she was general secretary) and was a finalist in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in ‘Good Health and Well-being’ and ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’ (goals 3 and 7 respectively), in which she developed a project which plants carbon-storing (sequestering) trees which would also improve food security, reduce coastal flooding and provide health benefits.
Equally energising are sisters Gauri and Purvika Awasthi, born in Kanpur, India but having also studied and lived in the US and the Netherlands. In 2016, when there were few sustainable fashion options, and those available were very expensive, they founded ‘The Vegan Wardrobe’ which focuses on sustainable, ethical and cruelty-free fashion through a number of intersectional projects, from clothes recycling to fighting against child labour exploitation and working in collaboration with organisations and universities.
Talking to both Emmanuella and the Awasthi sisters, one is struck by their energy and positivity as well as their achievements, inspiring in their scale and ambition. One thing ties all three individuals together – a hope to inspire and to show others possibilities for a better world – both in terms of climate, and other socio-economic issues.
Inspiration forms an important part of Emmanuella’s story. She first became committed to climate action after volunteering in sustainability projects, where she met others who also wanted to make a difference, it is this mutually energising community which seemed to propel Emmanuella. Her passion opened doors into the world of environmental action –as she worked in various projects as general secretary of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, she was given opportunities to further delve into sustainability-oriented projects when people recognised how interested she was.
Not only is it evident that passion propelled Emmanuella in her own work, but she also emphasises that how she lives and the environmental work she does is oriented towards inspiring others too. In fact, she insists on the importance of individual climate action – although large-scale impact is important, you must ‘practise what you preach’. Especially because if those around you see you take more sustainable action in your personal life, she says, they will be more likely to take sustainability seriously and also make these changes in their own lives. Clearly, whilst broad-scale change is important, inspiring others on a personal level is also powerful. The Awasthi sisters take a similar approach, emphasising the individual actions we can all take to influence people who we are in contact with, and, despite the small impact of everyday changes, they garner support and attention for larger-impact actions.
Still, it can be difficult to even convince people of the reality of climate change, let alone to take sustainable action. As Emmanuella expresses, it is “frustrating to talk passionately about something and not have people believe that it even exists”.
Gauri, who holds a graduate teaching scholarship at McNeese State University, in the US faced a similar problem, with little belief in the reality of climate change from students on her course. Yet, she found that after their state (Louisiana) was hit by ferocious hurricanes, the students were much more whole-heartedly committed to climate action. Therefore, Gauri advocates for personal relevance, like that made possible through individual action, to push climate change to the forefront of people’s minds
Still, in locations which, and for individuals who are already struggling to meet their basic needs, it can be (understandably) difficult for climate change, as intangible and global as it is, to be prioritised. Yet the interconnectedness of climate-related issues with other societal problems means that as one issue is tackled, the other is also confronted. This is exactly what The Vegan Wardrobe has done – in the case of fast fashion, the tangible problem of unethical labour practises can be tackled as well as unsustainable environmental practices. For example, the Awasthi sisters are looking into opening thrift stores in India (which are uncommon due to the social taboo against buying second-hand clothes if one can afford not to).
In Nigeria, where there has recently been an economic downturn and food insecurity is an important issue, climate change is also easily overlooked. Yet, as Emmanuella suggests, if tree-planting is prioritised (in the way her above-mentioned UN project advocated for), then not only is the agricultural sector positively impacted, but positive climate action is also undertaken.
Throughout my conversation with Emmanuella, as well as with Gauri and Purvika, the importance of multiply-impactful actions were clearly emphasised. Ultimately, the stories of these three inspirational women are steeped in hope. Their passion and drive and the far-reaching impacts of their achievements and goals are an inspiration to all of us. It is through these communities of energised people that we can truly build a global movement for positive climate action – whether these actions be big or small.
by Camilo Arango Duque (he/him)
2015 was, no doubt, an important year for Humanity in its fight against climate change. 23 years after the Rio de Janeiro Second Earth Summit (Rio 92) and its Framework Convention on Climate Change, virtually all States internationally recognized, (standing apart only Syria and Nicaragua) attended the meeting that gave place to the Paris Agreement. This revealed at least from the political perspective, that gone were the days of disagreement on the reality of climate change, its causes and consequences. And in the face of the frustrations of the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Summit, the new scope of the agreement caused a wave of hope.
Notwithstanding, the ink of the signatures of the agreement had not dried when the most profound differences with respect to the liabilities scheme were evident. The international principle of common responsibilities but differentiated, in theory so harmonious, posed important challenges in its practical application. That developing countries, in general terms and from the historical point of view, have not been great generators of greenhouse gases (GG), is a fact. Indeed, since the Industrial Revolution a direct proportion relationship exists between industrialization and the generation of emissions. Not by accident Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French politician who visited Manchester in 1835 wrote: “From this foul drain, the greatest stream of human industry flows to fertilise de whole world. From this filthy sewer, pure gold flows. Here Humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish”. (Touqueville, 27:58). Not only precariousness of life drew his attention, but also environment dirt in the industrial city. A clear historic argument exists that affirms that power states were able to progress based on the disproportionate use of their natural resources, ignoring external facts of the industrial process, and are now intending to place restrictions that limit the development and growth of those who have not reached a high level of social wellbeing, and developing countries often point it out.
Another argument that is set up as a common point indicates that for developing States, although some of them are increasing the generation of emissions, their emissions are always closely related to survival activities, while developed countries produce them linked to a certain lifestyle. Developed countries consider that certain developing countries are dramatically increasing their emissions and the GG curve in the framework of the business as usual is increasingly steeper.
With respect to the situation in Latin America, these differences in the perspective may result very harmful for Humanity. South America produces nearly 3.2% of global CO2 emissions (is the primary contaminant). Here are 12 countries that all together represent a percentage smaller than the percentage of one only State as China (27%), United States (15%), India (6.8%), Russia (4.7%) or Japan (3.3%). Latin American contribution, even adding Mexico (1.4%) and the other Central American countries to the production of CO2 emissions is not determining. But especially Latin America will suffer the negative consequences product of climate change. The South of the Continent has vast areas that are especially vulnerable to climate change for different reasons: geographical, social, economic and ecological, among others. Besides having ecosystems of vital importance for Humanity. Only in South America there are 30% of the tropical forests that have survived in the Planet, as the Amazon Forest. Around 10% of the Earth´s biodiversity lives in this ecosystem (in accordance with our limited knowledge). The Amazon, located in the territory of 9 Nation States is under serious risk. Richard Evan Schultez, who undertook a deep study of the Amazon Forest, expressed his concern: “in many regions of the Amazon Basin, native plants and animal species are being destroyed faster that can be recorded, classified and studied… Why not regard the Indians in the Amazon Basin as a kind of phytochemical rapid-assessment team already on the ground, which could help locate the most promising plants for chemical and pharmacological evaluation?... The Indian´s botanical knowledge is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves” (Schultes, 37: 1994).
Back to the debate that rekindled the Paris Agreement, the above-mentioned circumstances have led some Latin American countries to be sceptical with respect to the Agreement (in fact, Nicaragua had initially refused to participate in the agreement, arguing its scarce contribution to the emissions, being sceptical on this instrument and claiming an unequal treatment). As for Brazil, the president claims sovereignty of the Nation on its natural resources, so far as refusing to receive international support to stop the fires present for months in the Amazon region. This mechanism of aggravated claim of the Nation State is a barrier for international cooperation and for Nature that does not recognize political boundaries. Nationalism and the defense of an orthodox vision of sovereignty jeopardizes huge and important ecosystems.
Professor Jacques Chevalier (2014) believed that globalization has transformed the State forever, that common problems to Humanity, i.e. the environmental problem, terrorism, nuclear weapons and famine, would lead the Nation State, the Westphalian State to collapse. From its ashes the Post-Modern State would arise. A European thinker as Chevalier would find, out of his own experience, examples of this process: blurred boundaries between the European Union countries, a common Parliament, uniform economic policies, one same currency, one same visa. And in any event, it seemed a clear destination by the end of the Twentieth Century. Nevertheless, the Twenty-First Century surprises us with spectres of the past: new nationalist movements.
In the soft law framework, the States in many cases decide to what extent they will be responsible. And when sovereignty is understood from a more orthodox perspective, even radical – as in nationalisms – cooperation is much more difficult and establishment of responsibilities is impossible. When sovereignty gets tougher and radicalizes, when the Nation State is claimed or pursued, international law becomes softer, more flexible. It is a directly proportional relationship. Consequently, international cooperation that is so important for dealing with global problems, faces a great challenge. Clearly, international cooperation to face climate change has been limited and can not be understood as if this is an only and exclusive obstacle, but part of a more complex problem; international support has been insufficient, but when they have offered help, not always this help has been accepted.
That said, the recent Escazu Agreement (came into effect on April 2021) perhaps offers an alternative way. The possibility to act jointly in the regional scenario, the agreement is for Latin American and Caribbean countries. Among other, the agreement fosters protection to environmentalists and offer citizen participation instruments to the different social and cultural groups in their environmental concerns. In the words of Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), in many regions of the Amazon Basin, native plants and animal species are being destroyed faster that can be recorded, classified and studied… Why not regard the Indians in the Amazon Basin as a kind of phytochemical rapid-assessment team already on the ground, which could help locate the most promising plants for chemical and pharmacological evaluation?... The Indian´s botanical knowledge is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves””. (Escazú, 8:2018). The agreement, at least in theory, is aimed to offer effective democratic instruments so citizens may be informed of state decisions and be a part of them safely. Paradoxically, the agreement seeks in part to move the leading role of the State in making decisions towards a communitarian scale. It is an international agreement from which the State should give full reassurance to the citizens so they fully assume the protection of the environment.
The Escazú Agreement was not the result of spontaneous generation. The agreement is a regional effort for developing Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on the Environment and the 1992 Development that establishes the following: “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to Effective Access to participate in decision-making processes. States will facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided” (Rio Declaration 1992). This is then nothing else than the adoption of this international principle in order that it is binding and the creation of a regional commitment for its development. Until now, countries like Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras or Venezuela remain outside the agreement although they still have a long way to go with regard to protection to environmentalists and effective citizen participation instruments in environmental issues. Perhaps, and only perhaps, the States begin to transfer some of their decision-making powers, to the actors they represent in a democracy.
In conclusion, countries that generate greater quantities of GG emissions have a greater responsibility for restoring the damage. This must not mean that all other states are not responsible, inasmuch as, for better or worse, they will suffer in some places the worst consequences of climate change, as in the case of Latin America. Tensions present with Developed States should not take us to nationalist positions; perhaps the 9 states that inhabit the Amazon region are not its owners, but Humanity. (foreign States should reflect such idea in significant support for developing countries, owners of that and other territories). The Escazú Agreement now exists and promises the development of the aforementioned principle 10. We only have to wait to see how the association of important Latin States evolves and if such provisions will result in effective and executed prescriptions. Or perhaps, by contrast, if the jealous guardians of the Nation State will understand it as dead words dragged downstream the Amazon River.
(1) A trend that begins to change with new energy generation forms.
(2) China with 27% and India with 6.8% of global CO2 emissions are a good example of this group. Data from OurWorld in Data 2017. Available at http//ourworlddate.org/co2-emissions
(3) Data from: Our World in data, (RITCHIE AND ROSER 2020) Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions
CHEVALIER. Jacques. (2014). Estado Posmoderno. Universidad Externado: Bogotá
ESCAZÚ. (2018). Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.
DE TOCQUEVILLE, Alexis (1958) Journeys to England and Ireland. ed. J.P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence and K.P. Mayer. Yale University Press. New Heaven.
RITCHIE AND ROSER, Hannah and Max. (2020) CO2 and Greenhouse Emissiones. Oxford Martin school. Oxford.
RÍO DECLARATION ON ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT (1992). Principles. Río.
SHCULTEZ, Richard Evans (1994) Amazonian ethnobotany and the search for new drugs. Ciba Found Symp.
by Marion Beaulieu (she/her)
The impact of climate change is not gender-neutral. Women are disproportionately vulnerable to the risks stemming from the current climate crisis due to the nature of the social, economic and cultural environment they live in. Pre-existing inequalities are further intensified by climate change, which threatens to relegate women to the role of voiceless victims.
In poor communities which rely on natural resources and rural activity in order to subsist, women often occupy a central role in providing water, energy, and food supplies. The increasing scarcity of resources combined with the added strains resulting from environment degradation directly weigh on these tasks at the responsibility of women.
Cultural and social norms which attribute childcare responsibilities and other household activities to women also participate in magnifying the impact of climate change. In cases of natural disasters, which occur at a greater frequency and greater intensity, these obligations further complicate migration and settlement. Women’s livelihoods are increasingly precarious as they must accommodate to hostile circumstances while taking on the various duties conferred to them.
In terms of security, climate change participates in exacerbating domestic violence, human tafficking, and sexual assault. These added dangers maintain women under constant threat and jeopardise the progress made in recent years in terms of women's rights.
In addition to these social, economic and cultural factors which heighten the negative consequences of climate change for women, they remain marginalised from decision-making and positions of power. Not only are women increasingly vulnerable to our changing environment, they are not given sufficient means to lead the fight. Yet, it appears evident that the best responses can only be designed by those who experience directly and persistently the issues which we should strive to resolve.
Such an example of political exclusion can be noted in western Nepal, where climate change threatens women’s security. Higher temperatures, melting glaciers and increasing weather variability are negatively impacting the current socio-economic situation in the region. These changes further constrain access to natural resources and increase out-migration amongst men, which contribute to an increase in women’s responsibilities and precarity in employment. Domestic violence escalates alongside food insecurity, further adding to the vulnerability of women. Yet, women are marginalised from political decision-making, and lack any channels of expression or protest.
As a response to the grave increasing vulnerability of women in face of the climate crisis and the resulting need for empowerement, a feminist approach to political ecology emerged. According to this perspective, gender is the main prism through which we must understand decision-making and the influence of socio-political forces on environmental issues. Particular attention is given to access and control of resources, especially in developing countries. The distinct impact of climate change on different genders is not considered to be biologically-rooted, but rather arises from social constructs of gender.
Prominent scholars in this field include Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter and Esther Wangari, who further advocated for a social interpretation of gender roles. A focal point of their work revolves around the undeniable and yet too-often overlooked idea of intersectionality. Gender interacts and overlaps with a multitude of other factors, such as race, socio-economic status, culture and ethnicity, which must be considered in our approach to climate change and the role of women in leading our response. Depicting women as a homogenous group is an obstacle to both achieving greater understanding of the climate crisis’ unequal effects and to designing appropriate measures.
The necessity to consider gender in an intersectional framework supports the fundamental importance of case studies and their pivotal role in placing women at the core of decision-making. Greater attention should be given to specific geographical regions with distinctive cultural and social practices.
This call was echoed by Chizu Sato and Jozelin Maria Soto Alarcón, who focused their work on the cooperative Milpa Maguey Tierno de la Mujer in San Andrés Daboxtha in rural Mexico. The increasing desertification of the region incited men to migrate in order to secure their livelihood. Women were left behind and tasked with caring for the household and the community, while subsisting through precarious work. The cooperative emerged from this context, in the aim to promote productive roles for women and carry their voice in the decision-making process.
Using indigenous knowledge and initial funding provided by NGOs as well as the national government, the cooperative produces agave syrup. Members collectively negotiated the use of land and implemented an organic certification for their production. Supervision and discussion regarding the methods of production are held in a democratically elected internal committee, which provides women of the community with decisive influence in the decisions affecting their own livelihoods. By 2019, the community had rehabilitated 70 hectares of their land and succeeded in securing an organic certification. Through continuous sharing of knowledge and further flourishing of environmental-friendly agricultural practices, the cooperative preserved more than 25 various agave species.
Familial support was difficult to secure for the women participating in the cooperative, especially from their husbands. However, the undeniable financial benefits of the scheme supported the women’s active role in the community. The social benefits arising from the cooperative are also numerous. The creation of a common pool savings serves to satisfy collective needs as well as the necessary care for the women’s households. Members of the cooperative also discuss and address private issues, such as domestic violence and oppression occuring in their household.
Women’s vulnerability to climate change can and must be a stepping stone towards political and environmental empowerment. For years, women developed essential knowledge and skills, which, as shown by the Milpa Maguey Tierno de la Mujer cooperative, should be employed in combating the gender-specific impact of climate change. It is only by fully committing to an intersectional approach and effectively including women in the decision-making process that we can secure positive environmental change.
Photo by Lyle Hastie on Unsplash
By Aili Channer (she/her)
‘Thirty years ago, I was asked about the sea level rise,’ says Teuleala, a retired civil servant, climate change activist and now co-founder of an NGO with a focus on food security in relation to climate change, sanitation and hygiene, and women’s empowerment. ‘I recall I replied with emotion, that this is my home and my identity, and whatever the consequences I will choose to stay.’
Tuvalu is a small island state composed of six atolls and three reef islands, making it nine isolated atoll islands, in the Pacific Ocean, situated midway between Australia and Hawaii. Atolls are ring-shaped coral reefs surrounding lagoons. The rings of land are often no more than four hundred metres in width, meaning that there is nearly always a view of the sea through the coconut trees. The sea level is now rising by 3.9 millimetres each year, which is more than double the global average . Because of this, there are concerns that the islands could cease to be habitable over the next decades.
In the world’s major economies, the torpor of institutional and sometimes individual action to reduce carbon emissions can be explained by the perceived discrepancy between the gravity of scientific predictions and the business-as-usual of everyday life in an economic system that places value on short-term profits, rather than on safeguarding the future. Global inequalities are therefore at the crux of climate inaction, because anthropogenic climate change is posing the most immediate threat to the nations and communities which contribute the least to global greenhouse gas emissions. This perpetuates the apparent disconnect between cause and effect in the Global North, and makes it all the more essential to approach environmental decision-making through a global, rather than a national lens, and to make sure that the experiences of those most vulnerable to climate change are heard.
Modern technology makes it possible for us to educate ourselves and learn from the experiences of others. Only a few years ago, our conversation would have not even been conceivable, but thanks to the spread of internet connection in the islands, I was able to interview Teuleala face-to-face from my bedroom in France via a Facebook video call, while studying from home during a national lockdown.
Sea-level rise is what comes most readily to mind when thinking about the impact of climate change on island nations, perhaps because its relationship with global warming is particularly clear-cut. Rising temperatures cause the thermal expansion of the seawater alongside the melting of ice-sheets and glaciers, causing sea level to rise. In Tuvalu, Teuleala tells me, coastal erosion is already having damaging impacts. On one of the islands, waves from the ocean are starting to cover it with water during storms, and to flood homes. Houses have to be built on stilts so that families can escape the flooding during cyclones. Mangroves have been introduced to some of the islands in an attempt to protect against erosion.
The effects of the rising sea level are also being exacerbated by other, less understood, changes, notably the increasingly unpredictable weather. The cyclones that cause flooding are becoming more frequent. Even more worryingly, rainfall has become less regular, which presents a very real danger to Tuvaluans because it is the islands’ main source of fresh water. Teuleala describes how having to ration buckets of water between families during droughts has become commonplace. The coconut trees have also suffered from the droughts, which is alarming because they are a staple food and one of the few crops grown on the islands.
The covid-19 pandemic has revealed the vulnerability that comes with dependence on imports from overseas, with the islands sometimes being left cut off from the supply chain. This has led to a new emphasis on growing traditional foods, but the yields are impacted by the coastal erosion and unpredictable weather, meaning that the concurrent pressures of climate change and the pandemic are jeopardising the islands’ food security. The most important traditional food is pulaka, or giant swamp taro, a root vegetable traditionally grown in pits dug into the atoll. Because of the higher tides and frequent flooding, saltwater is now polluting the pits, tending to rot the vegetables.
Teuleala explains to me that pulaka is an integral part of the Tuvaluan way of life, having a cultural significance that extends far beyond its value as a staple food. The pits where the plants are grown are maintained by the same families over generations, with the skill being passed from parents to their children. A family’s status in the community, she tells me, is partly determined by the size of the tubers of the vegetables they grow in their pits. It is therefore not only the nation’s staple crop but also its culture and way of life that is under threat from climate change.
Climate change adaptation strategies are being trialled to sustain pulaka cultivation, notably lining the pits with cement to prevent the intrusion of saltwater, but it is uncertain how long these will be able to keep up with the pace of rising tides.
The sense of cultural identity and rootedness that goes with the traditional way of life is what makes the possibility that the islands will disappear so hard. Every year, Teuleala tells me, some thirty people migrate to New Zealand, but many young people also return from studying overseas with the conviction that Tuvalu is where they want to live, making them some of the strongest advocates for staying. The country’s leaders have been clear that if it comes down to it, the population will have to leave, but the loss of identity and belonging this would entail makes it unthinkable for many Tuvaluans.
Teuleala explains, her voice breaking up, that the communities come together to pray for their future on the islands, but that it feels beyond their control. ‘I believe in these islands,’ she says, ‘but we’ve been told we have another thirty years to go.’
The future feels uncertain. Meanwhile, the threats posed by climate change are fuelling the country’s development, bringing in funding from overseas that feeds into other activities, such as the work of Teuleala’s NGO on using a raised wicking system to grow local food crops to replace growing foods in pulaka pits.
The country also now has a particularly important diplomatic voice, as a member of the Alliance of Small Island States, an organisation that acts as a negotiating voice in the United Nations, focusing on climate change, sustainable development, and ocean conservation. The Pacific islands continue to have a disproportionately positive impact in international climate negotiations. They are the drivers behind initiatives such as the Tony deBrum declaration, named after the Marshallese politician and climate activist, which was signed by thirty-five nations to lobby the shipping industry to decarbonise. 
The Marshall Islands, an archipelago of atolls in the Micronesian subregion, like Tuvalu are threatened with disappearance. As Ambassador Doreen de Brum, Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum of Nations and Permanent Representative of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations, put it, ‘The term “climate refugee” is not a theoretical one for us. When I think of the next generation of Marshallese people, I don’t know if they will have a country.’  The rupture with their roots that would result from being a people left without a country would be a deeply devastating cultural loss.
The small island states are speaking up, but sadly, the rest of the world continues to fiddle while Rome burns. If these countries are to have a future, it is imperative that the international community acts with all urgency, now.
Aili Channer, email@example.com