20 Sep 2019

NZ's Pacific communities call for climate action

3:38 pm on 20 September 2019

More attention needs to be given to countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis, Pacific communities in New Zealand say.

And as Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau battle rising tides, its youth are bringing attention to the plight.

Sea level rise in Kiribati.

Sea level rise in Kiribati. Photo: Supplied

While Australia has been slammed in the Pacific over its climate change inaction, New Zealand has largely been praised.

If nothing else, a full endorsement of climate agreements at July's Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu earned it the respect of Pacific leaders.

But not everyone's convinced enough is being done to tackle the climate crisis where it hits the hardest: atoll nations.

A youth advisor for the Kiribati community in Auckland, Rubina Tekanene, is worried for her people.

"I feel sad because that's where our roots come from. Maybe one day I'm not going to hear Kiribati anymore because it's disappeared."

Ms Tekanene said there should be more priority given to resettling those displaced by rising sea levels.

According to the International Labour Organisation, as many as 350,000 people from Pacific atoll populations are at risk of displacement.

Heto Puka

Heto Puka Photo: RNZ Pacific / Mackenzie Smith

But not everyone's ready to give up just yet.

A former Tokelauan public servant now living in Auckland, Heto Puka, said New Zealand needed to step up his efforts on climate mitigation.

Tokelauans are frustrated, Mr Puka said.

"The issue is that it's a lot more about policy, policy being driven by the government, whether it actually meets the concerns of the people on the ground."

A three-metre seawall is all that protects Tokelau's three remote atolls.

It recently secured New Zealand Foreign Ministry support in mitigating coastal hazards.

Still, Auckland University associate professor Damon Salesa said New Zealand's response needed to be domestic as well.

"It's much more complex than just sending somebody up to Tokelau to build something," Dr Salesa said.

Others tend to agree.

Assoc. Prof. Damon Salesa

Assoc. Prof. Damon Salesa Photo: University of Auckland

Next week, a student-led climate strike in Auckland will rally Pasifika activists in an event titled "Our Islands Need You".

Dr Salesa said Pacific communities in New Zealand were leading a national conversation on climate change.

"Particularly from younger people, there's a clear sign that younger people are taking climate change a lot more seriously than some of the other generations."

That's the case for 24-year-old Tavita Nielsen-Mamea, a Tuvaluan playwright.

He said growing up, he always knew Kiribati would disappear under the waves.

And his play Au Ko Tuvalu is showcasing just that in Christchurch.

"In the Pacific, the climate is taking away a lot of their homes. When you're walking around in New Zealand, you kind of take note of that and take note of everyone's stories, because it's hard to see in everyday reality, but everyone is going through something to do with climate change," Mr Nielsen-Mamea said.

New Zealand has an important role to play as a big brother in the Pacific, he said.

An scene from the play Ko Au Tuvalu.

An scene from the play Ko Au Tuvalu. Photo: White Knight Independent Contracting