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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Global warming challenge

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The following was recently published in The Outrigger, journal of the Pacific Islands Society of the UK and Ireland, and is based on a talk given to them by Meg earlier this year.



Islanders must speak out in defence of their homeland, advises former British Government minister Meg Munn


I HAVE visited the Pacific several times, and each time I have been dazzled by its beauty and the welcome from my hosts.  My mobile phone may not work, and the internet connection is not always great.  But whilst there I grew to understand the value that many Pacific people place on the connection to the UK, despite the difficulties of distance and communication


Last year, I led a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) delegation to study the effects climate change was having on some of these small island nations. The group visited Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tuvalu all members of the Commonwealth. In order to see four islands the group divided into two. I visited Tuvalu, a small nation with a population of 11,000 and its main island, Funafuti a long strip of land. I also visited Vanuatu, much the biggest of the four with a population of just over 200,000. My parliamentary colleague Colin Challen led the group that visited Kiribati and Tonga.


Climate change shot up on the news agenda with the Copenhagen conference. Amongst the areas of the world badly affected now are the small island nations in the South Pacific that have become one of the front lines of climate change. More than ever before the small island nations made their voice heard at the conference Tuvalu in particular. The outcome wasn’t what they wanted indeed what they need but did it do enough to set the world on a road that will take action to prevent the worst?


This international summit had to agree a plan replacing the 1997 ‘Kyoto Protocol’ which set voluntary targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It is becoming increasingly accepted that climate change is a problem affecting the world now, not for some distant time in the future. For the Pacific Islands we visited, the issue could not be more urgent.


A recent estimate gave us the figure of 300,000 deaths a year due to climate change, with a further 300 million adversely affected. (Climate Change, Global Humanitarian Forum Geneva 2009).


The Pacific Ocean comprises nearly a third of the world’s surface area, dotted with many small nations. Both Tuvalu and Kiribati are nations which comprise a number of low-lying islands, much more vulnerable to the climate than large continental land masses. While extreme events such flooding here in the UK  receive extra resources from government and are seen as a wake up call about climate change, in the Pacific they can impose severe hardship or literally mean the end of a village forever. 


We heard from many people that the effects of climate change are already making daily life much more difficult. Some were angry that while they contribute virtually no emissions themselves they are suffering the changes due to the greenhouse gas emissions we pump out. Experts at the University of the South Pacific described it as one of the most profound issues across the Pacific.


A boat ride across choppy waters took me to the village of Marou on Emau Island: a small island in Vanuatu. The village is built on a promontory and Daniel Kaltava, a provincial councillor, showed us how the land is being eroded. Already the village relies on harvested rainwater as the ground water is contaminated. Funds from international organisations have provided reinforcement for the coastline but the villagers live with the fear that a storm could easily destroy trees and other defences which line the coast.


The economies of these small island nations are shaped by the extreme changes bought by climate change changes that set back sustainable economic development. The Pacific islands are relatively poor and less able to cope with the extreme weather that is becoming more frequent. Local people lack the resources needed to be resilient to these new weather events.


It is not the often-portrayed issue of sea level rise and islands disappearing under water. Long before that happens populations have to move. Already in Vanuatu one small island’s population has been relocated. Rising salty sea water contaminates the ground water which is used for drinking leading to the need to harvest water. The local council in Funafuti, on the main island of Tuvalu, told us that families are currently rationed to six buckets of water each morning and evening.


When the land becomes saturated and salty it is impossible to grow food. At the moment around 70 to 80% of the people on these islands are reliant upon agriculture. In Tuvalu the island regularly experiences high tides leading to flooding.  How can a small farmer keep animals or sow crops when fertile soils and freshwater are contaminated with salt from rising seas?


The cost of importing food increases and puts greater pressure on the economy of these small nations. Across the South Pacific the issue of food security has risen in importance. Experts from the Ni-Vanuatu metrological office told me that this was the main issue for local people.


What of the future?  Does it really matter if these people have to leave their islands? If left unabated climate change refuges will increase in numbers not just in the Pacific region but across Africa and north India and Bangladesh. Whether due to rising sea water or drought, the inability to grow food will force people on the move.


Pressure will surely grow for the larger countries in the Pacific to take in climate change refugees. But the reality is that no Pacific nation will be unaffected, no matter how large. More than half the population of the islands of the region live within 1.5 km of the shore. Within 20 years heavily populated areas of many nations in the region will be uninhabitable.


Some of these islands have begun to prepare for the future. For instance Vanuatu has prepared a National Adaptation Programme for Action, but due to lack of funding has not been able to implement much. It’s important we support the Pacific people as they try and adapt to a future determined by their changeable weather. These island communities are poor and vulnerable; they are victims of climate change.


The world needs to hear the voice of the people of the Pacific. It has been said that the Pacific was “the canary in the coalmine” warning the world of future disasters. Supporting Pacific countries in international gatherings is a role the UK has taken up and was one of the aims of our visit.


There’s no doubt that the outcome of Copenhagen was disappointing in a number of respects. It did not establish a clear timetable for a legal treaty, and the commitments to cuts in emissions. However, the accord, agreed at Copenhagen by a group representing 49 developed and developing countries that together account for over 80% of global emissions, does mark progress, which must be built upon. It endorses the limit of two degrees warming as the benchmark for global progress on climate change. The Pacific Islands had argued for no more than 1.5 degrees even within the Pacific Islands Forum the agreement was no more than 2 degrees due to the influence of larger nations.


Developed and all leading developing countries have agreed to make specific commitments to tackle emissions. All countries have also signed up to comprehensive measurement, reporting and verification of progress. There are significant commitments made by the rich world to developing countries. This includes fast start finance worth 10bn a year by 2012 with a total of up to 2.4bn from the UK and specific support to tackle deforestation.


However 49 countries is not enough. This is a global problem. I am pleased that the British Government committed itself to working to convert the accord into a legally binding agreement as soon as possible.


I hope that the Pacific Islands will continue to speak up and challenge both industrialised countries and developing countries to agree to action to limit temperature rise. It’s also important to continue to demand funds for adaptation whether water tanks provided by EU to harvest rainwater which I saw in Tuvalu or material to build up coast line to prevent erosion as I saw in Vanuatu. The experts tell us that failure to help populations adapt now will mean that the situation will be much worse in 20 years time


On my visits to the Pacific Islands I have been impressed with their beauty and unique environments. I have also been privileged to meet people from a wider range of countries and to learn a little about the fascinating histories of the Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian peoples. Faced with the challenge of climate change and their possible disappearance we have a duty to act. They left a lasting impression on me and I hope that I will continue to be counted as a friend of the Pacific.


Meg Munn MP, former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office with responsibility for the Pacific, has twice led the official UK delegation to the Post Forum Dialogue, and latterly an All-Party Parliamentary delegation on behalf of the CPA to study climate change in the region.   

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