Some of the nations most vulnerable to climate change met last week, as part of the world’s first ever zero-carbon, virtual Climate Summit. The meeting was hosted by the Republic of the Marshall Islands in an effort to boost international climate action.
Fourty-seven countries were represented by government officials including more than twenty Heads of State and a raft of new measures were announced.
These measures included an enhanced national climate action plan from the Marshall Islands - way ahead of the 2020 deadline set for all other countries under the UN Paris Agreement - and a bold initiative from Vanuatu to sue fossil fuel companies and countries failing in their duty to limit global warming.
As a citizen of the Marshall Islands I hope that this helps pile the pressure on big industrialised states with the capacity to do far more to tackle the climate crisis and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius.
Our country is at a new turning point with dealing with the reality of climate change if we don’t step up the fight against major fossil fuel projects
At our second national conference on climate change this year, projections showing the effects of water levels rising - inundating significant portions of the capital, highly populated villages and the airport - caused a collective, audible gasp in the audience.
Scientists and experts have recommended that the government begins physically elevating the existing land or building artificial islands. The situation is that dire and that urgent.
I’ve been travelling the world to share my experiences of how climate impacts are threatening the destruction of homelands and entire cultures.
Some people and institutions are reacting to this reality faster, and more effectively than others.
In Japan I attended a gathering of some of the best architects, designers, artists gathered at the Innovative City Forum to consider new ways to future-proof our cities to limit their footprint on the environment and cope with unavoidable climate impacts we have already triggered.
I used this platform to share with the audience my grief with the possibility of blasting apart our reefs to protect against sea level rise and that we are being forced into doing something we would have never considered before.
As I travel I meet people standing up to take action against climate change in a variety of powerful and meaningful ways.
This September I met with poet and activist Aka Niviana high up on a melting glacier in her home country, Greenland. Here I saw for myself an entire mountainscape of rubble and rock that, according to the glaciologist we were with, was covered in ice just five years before.
As we flew away in a helicopter, we witnessed a massive glacier calving into the ocean. Together, Aka and I filmed a poem, Rise, which reflects the turmoil we collectively experience as one’s homeland melts and the other’s drowns. Here is an excerpt:
“Let me show you
bulldozed reefs, blasted sands
and plans to build new atolls
forcing land from an ancient, rising sea,
forcing us to imagine
turning ourselves to stone”
The voices of impacted communities must be amplified and heard in the fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In some places, they are.
Around this time last year, I travelled to Germany with seventeen other Pacific Climate Warriors - grassroots organisers from around fourteen other islands across Oceania - to join with climate protectors in their ongoing opposition to Germany’s coal production and use.
In the freezing rain, we served kava in a traditional Fijian ceremony in Manheim, a town that was abandoned due to the expansion of the coal mine. The ceremony was one that was traditionally used in the Fijian culture to ask for permission to enter a new land.
After the ceremony, our group travelled together to an open-pit lignite mine near Cologne, singing an island classic at the top of our lungs - the completion of our action had lightened us significantly.
We were shocked into silence when we arrived by the chasm that opened out in front of us: a gash across land. An emptiness.
Germany has been a leader in many international climate initiatives - yet it continues to open and expand these devastating coal mines.
Germany needs to stop the production and use of coal by 2025 at the latest in order to make a fair contribution in the effort of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.
People supporting the rights of communities impacted by climate change alongside the grassroots climate change organisation 350.org have launched an international petition demanding that the government immediately put a stop to coal expansion projects and initiate a rapid coal phase out.
Meeting national climate targets for 2020 is only possible by phasing out half of country’s coal capacity immediately but the German government is lacking the political will to do so.
Stand in solidarity
Next month, a commission formed by the German government is expected to suggest a plan for the coal phase out. According to leaked information, it is not very likely that this plan will be in line with the Paris Agreement.
Since my visit to Hambach the people of the anti-coal movement in Germany have been putting their bodies on the line to prevent glaciers melting, to stop islands drowning and to preserve their own lands.
Mass protests and a growing anti-coal movement helped save - at least for now - the pristine, ancient Hambach forest from RWE’s plans to expand an enormous lignite mine in western Germany - the largest source of CO2 in Europe.
The resistance to massive fossil fuel projects is growing all across Europe, anti-fracking in the UK, anti-coal in Germany and NoTAP in Southern Europe to name a few.
As I continue to travel the world to tell the story of the Marshall Islands, and other areas impacted by climate change, I urge others to stand in solidarity with these communities and with those who are placing their bodies on the line to stop the dirty fossil fuel projects that will devastate the rest of the world. Climate change knows no borders.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a poet and climate change activist from the Marshall Islands.