The question of Tokelau, one of the world’s most vulnerable to climate change
Tomorrow, 22nd April, the world marks Mother Earth Day that was established seven years ago. This year it takes on extra significance as leaders representing around 147 of the world’s 195 countries congregate in New York to officially sign the Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement, a treaty under international law, is the first real collective effort by the international community to tackle climate change. The ‘signing’ tomorrow is part of the process that countries need to take in order for the Agreement to enter into force in 2020.
The Paris Agreement, which aims to move the world away from reliance on fossil fuels, is crucial to the survival of small low-lying atolls and states such as Tokelau. Just last Thursday, a panel of leading United Nations climate scientists re-confirmed this.
Mr Hoesung Lee, chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said “serious risks” were associated with even minor increases in temperatures, particularly to coral reefs and to coasts from rising sea levels. Already, global temperature has passed 1degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times; making the Paris Agreement goal of keeping temperatures below 2degrees Celsius an ominously difficult one.
And that is one of the extra realities for a country like Tokelau – that due to its political status as a Territory of New Zealand, it cannot be a member of the United Nations. That means it cannot voice its concerns in the United Nations. It cannot take a direct part in the UN climate negotiations process and it cannot participate directly in any Paris Agreement solutions. The only way for Tokelau to be included is if New Zealand allows it as part of its delegation or make requests to the United Nations for a special dispensation. A call New Zealand has made a number of times in the past.
As a direct impact of its political status, Tokelau’s commitment to send a representative to tomorrow’s signing event could not be met. Events, not in their control conspired against Tokelau’s wishes.
Tokelau wanted its representative, Mrs Paula Faiva, to be there to show its support for the Paris Agreement; take part in the side event coordinated by the Coalition of Atoll Nations for Climate Change (CANCC) in which it is a member; and to build its ‘Friends of Tokelau’ network seeking help to build resilience to its ever growing vulnerability challenge at home.
As a back-up plan, Tokelau did manage to send through a paper detailing its position on the Paris Agreement based on a request by New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Information the agency say will form part of the background briefing prepared for the Minister for Climate Change, Mrs Paula Bennett who will be signing on behalf of New Zealand.
It is difficult times for the South Pacific territory whose 1,500 or so people live on three main atolls that are only 1 to 5meters above sea level.
“I think it’s the sea-level rise that’s the biggest threat to us as low-lying atolls,” admitted Mrs Faiva after the tough work of putting together the New Zealand response and frustration of losing the fight to get to New York.
“Tokelau has low soil fertility with only a few food crops that can grow in those conditions – that is one challenge to developing our agricultural sector. On top of that we see the eroded coastal areas reducing cultivatable land and plant species disappearing that used to provide some protection from the sea.”
Its main source of food security and revenue come from its 319,000 square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) “but even that is now being threatened,” says Mrs Faiva.
“Our communities have noted, for a long period now, the decreased catches by fishermen – and it is now common knowledge that ocean warming is linked to the migration of ocean species away from our territorial waters.”
Despite the rising fear about the future, the locals are continuing with their daily lives, doing what they have to do to manage and sustain their food security, and to keep the hope that their culture, land and heritage would be saved for future generations.
But it is hard to soldier on when extreme weather changes continue to attack intended results she added.
“As much as you want to remain positive, and do all you should, and can do to survive, there is a feeling out there that it is only a matter of time. Not only based on what the people are seeing but also on what the science is saying.”
But that has also served to strengthen Mrs Faiva’s resolve to up the ante and continue the fight looking to possibilities that the Paris Agreement may bring. To be proactive in the international arena soliciting more targeted support from New Zealand and international partners to help fight climate change both domestically, and globally.
To do that Tokelau has embarked on building a climate change platform from which its vision and aspirations are mapped to practical and realistic projects with immediate to long-term outputs and outcomes.
A plan founded on a holistic and pragmatic approach that recognises having lots of financial resources to support technologies and start projects to combat climate change, is only part of the solution. That commitment to fight climate change together with durability, resilience and faith to continue as things will only get worse before they get better.
“Tokelau is developing its own Strategic Plan on Climate Change for the next decade. It’s called LivC, Living with Change: Enhancing the resilience of Tokelau to climate and related hazards,” she said with much enthusiasm.
“It will be an integral part of not only our National Development Plan currently under discussion but also on how effectively we can contribute to New Zealand’s response to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP21 outcomes and the Paris Agreement.
“We need funding for LivC, and that’s what we’re actively looking for, but just because we don’t have it yet doesn’t mean we will wait. We have started the process, our leaders have endorsed an all of government approach to ensure all hands are on deck. Frankly, this is what needs to be done because it is our blueprint to fight climate change. This is our way forward to how we will survive this threat to our existence as a unique culture and people.”
The other aspiration that drives Mrs Faiva, “When we are successful in our efforts, we become a clarion call to the rest of the world that we can win this war.
“So yes, Tokelau is well aware that its local efforts cannot win the war against climate change – that can only happen through a planetary-scale response – but every little battle we win, is a step towards that ultimately victory.
“And that is the bedrock on which our LivC blueprint is built upon.”
A copy of Tokelau’s feedback on Climate Change: Views sought on COP21 and the historic Paris Agreement will be made available after the UN signing tomorrow.