by Emmarie May Bonganciso | November 20, 2021
An ancient Polynesian tradition dictates that once a child is born, the placenta is cut and buried into their birth land. This is to symbolize the binding between the baby and the earth to provide harvest and resources for the child’s survival. According to Samoan journalist Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, the Pacific Islands, depending on the language spoken, know of it as “fonua” or “fanua”, terms that mean both “land” and “placenta”. In the same way, when a Polynesian dies, their bones are buried into their family land, which together comes full circle into a clear depiction of the life and death of a Polynesian.
The connection between man and land thus becomes understandably vital. This remains true today as these same islands face their biggest foe: non-existence. And that brings us to the many voices crying for help — reforms for the last 26 years.
A global climate conference set on getting world leaders to discuss solutions for climate change was held in the first two weeks of November in Glasgow, Scotland. The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), is the latest in a series of nearly annual meetings where nations come together to break through differences and rise to the challenges of climate change. After its postponement due to the COVID-19 outbreak last year, COP26 was highly anticipated. The world finally got to check in with what they’ve done for the last six years after signing the Paris Agreement in 2015.
This was ideally the place where those on the frontline of the climate crisis could be heard by giant powerhouses — the leading, progressive countries who are mainly to account for the majority of the damage inflicted. However, the voices coming from these small dots on the globe struggle to echo, at least in the ears of those who need to hear it most. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, one-third of the small Pacific island states and territories were unable to send any government figures to the summit. The tension is still high as climate disasters become more extreme and frequent, but the lack of representation from these countries, among those most at risk, dulls the impact of their call to action. Has COP26 become a climate “turning point” as United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants, or more “blah blah blah” of the kind Greta Thunberg condemns?
With his trousers rolled up to his knees, suit and tie behind a lectern, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, Simon Kofe, delivered his speech in knee-deep seawater in Funafuti, Tuvalu. It was a bold and remarkable statement, illustrating the reality these people face. Tuvalu is a country in the South Pacific, considered one of the least visited islands globally, and one of the first predicted to be completely wiped off the map due to climate change. Many major polluters have pledged to intensify carbon reductions in the following decades. Some aim for net-zero emissions by 2050. However, the Pacific Islands’ leaders demand rapid action, asserting that the survival of their low-lying countries is on the line.
The impacts of climate change in the Pacific vary depending on the type of island. Extreme rainfalls, prolonged droughts, sea level rises, and storm surges can cripple infrastructure and economies overnight. Still, the far-reaching psychological effects for people who rely on the land and sea for their livelihoods are rarely discussed. This lingering fear of the future is not something anyone can simply capture. It may not be something you can see as you just talk about its physical effects, but for Pacific Islanders, it’s something that is constantly at the front of their minds. It is the existential threat to those who have bound their whole identity to that land on which they stand.
“Try harder,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley declares in her speech at the summit. “Failure to provide the critical finance, and that of loss and damage, is measured, my friends, in lives and livelihoods in our communities. This is immoral and it is unjust.”
In her powerful speech, Mottley exhorted her fellow leaders to leverage the COP26 summit to address the pressing issues currently evoking anxiety among their people, whether the climate crisis or COVID-19 vaccine distribution. She urged the world leaders to avoid failing the people who elected them to office. “Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?” Mottley added.
Mottley’s speech was laced in urgency, and much like that of the former Pacific Islands’ leaders who have attended these summits in the past decades, demanded active change from the global community. However, there is certainly fatigue from saying the same things year after year and the drastic impacts on the Pacific prevail.
Pacific Islanders tie their existence to the land in which they were born. But, as Mia Mottley said to the leaders present in the conference, “If our existence is to mean anything, we must act in the interest of our people who are dependent on us.” For nations to stay faithful to the promises made in the Paris Agreement, there has to be tenacity in economic and social transformation based on the best available research. And it is vital for people all over the world to see climate change as a present issue needing present action. For some, the climate crisis may just mean hotter days, but for others, it brings grown men in tears for losing crops, homes, and being left with no other choice but to uproot themselves from their homelands.
It is fairly easy to show up and dress and speak the part at a conference, and it is an acquired skill to tickle ears and tug at heartstrings, but we will need more than just sympathy and carefully crafted motivational speeches.
Summits like this are made for discourse, negotiation, and most importantly, representation. There is a need to constantly put these concerns on the table. COP26 is indeed a critical part of the global effort against climate change. It always has been, but more so now as the window for evading its worst effects starts to close with the poorest and smallest countries at the forefront.
COP26 will only be truly significant if the most powerful people in our world today leave Scotland with the resolve and ambition that their people sorely need. It is, after all, the last call.