A Pacific Islander mother’s letter to her children about climate justice

13 September 2016

My little darlings, on 28 July 2016 as you slept with the sound of the ocean keeping you both company, there was a big commotion on the other side of the ocean.

The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines asked 47 fossil fuel companies, including BHP Billiton, Shell and BP, to respond to a 60-page legal petition alleging their greenhouse gas emissions are violating the human rights of people living in the Philippines.

This is the first time that a national human rights body has taken steps to address the impacts of climate change on human rights – and hold private companies responsible.

A Pacific Islander observes the waves hitting the sea wall near her home

A Pacific Islander observes the waves hitting the sea wall near her home. Photograph: Christian Åslund/Greenpeace

Climate justice

My little mynah birds, you see the thing is that every person regardless of where they are born or what they look like, has the right to live, a right to feed themselves, a right to clean water and a roof over their heads.

The country that all these people come from also has the right to chose how they govern without any other country telling them how to do it. We, the people of the ocean, have always enjoyed this right and this freedom.

We learned long ago how to rely on our oceans and land to feed ourselves to live wholesome lives. But things have started to change for us, and they are changing rapidly. Mommy’s heart races when she reads or hears grown-ups talk about what they call “extreme weather events”. Words like cyclone, drought heatwaves, flooding and heavy rains make mommy nervous.

These words have always been part of how we lived and survived and we and the other creatures of the oceans have, to some degree, adapted to these.

A woman outside of her home in a fishing village near Betio in Kiribati

A woman outside of her home in a fishing village near Betio in Kiribati. Photograph: Christian Åslund/Greenpeace

Stronger and more intense

The thing that scares us my little birdies is that these events are happening more often and are getting stronger. We know how to deal with one cyclone per season but are weakened when we have to deal with two or three. In the past we could still manage if one crop of rice failed because the rains did not come on time, because we still had coconuts on the trees. But now the rains do not come on time, the crop turns brown and then we get a cyclone that is so raging mad that it beheads our coconut palms. We go from dry cracked land to torrent rains that sweep away the topsoil that we need to plant.

We go from one misfortune to another and very soon our stoves lay dormant for days.

The same raging mad cyclones that take our coconuts also take the roofs above our heads and flatten the walls. Sometimes these very walls and roofs that provide us with safety and shelter injure us as they are possessed by winds of 230km/h (145 mph).

One of many buildings on Tanna Island destroyed by Cyclone Pam. Tanna Island is one of the outer Islands of Vanuatu and was hit by Cyclone Pam in March 2015. Greenpeace is in Vanuatu to help deliver relief to outlying islands. After Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu,

One of many buildings on Tanna Island in Vanuata that was destroyed by Cyclone Pam in March 2015. 75,000 people were left in dire need of emergency shelter and other goods to restore their lives and homes. Photograph: Steven Lyon/Greenpeace

With our roofs gone, our water tanks are dry. There is no water for sanitation. We get sick. The hospital is damaged. The schools are gone. Books, toys all took wings and got lost, damaged, broken, gone. We are on our knees. Some of our governments do what they can, some simply look the other way. And we wait.

Our elders do not know what to say to us. Their knowledge, understanding, reverence and connection to the land and ocean cannot help us and they mourn this loss silently. The climate they knew is not the one that we live with now. Mother earth’s climate is changing in a way that we could not have imagined a century ago.  

The battle for climate justice

“What have we done to deserve this?” You will both ask me one day soon. “Why did the oceans and the land  turn on us?”

We fell in a slumber. We forgot our responsibility as guardians of the ocean and the land. Human use of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution began to change the climate a long time ago.

Despite these profound changes, climate change still appears to many people as distant and remote in time and space. Yet, when we experience extreme events we know they are occurring with greater frequency or with increased intensity.

A tiny fraction of carbon emissions comes floating in the atmosphere comes from the Pacific Islands. The average Pacific Islander produces just a quarter of the CO2 compared to the world average.

What about the rest? Who is going to come forward and take responsibility? We wait for climate justice.

Sign up for climate justice campaign updates here