COP21 in Paris is underway and I’ll use it as a launching pad for this blog!

As with previous COP meetings, some of the most threatened communities by climate change, Small Island States and other indigenous coastal societies (e.g. Arctic Inuit) are garnering lots of relevant press presents the determination and cooperation of, and challenges to, these communities as they argue for significant behavioral shifts in human activity to try to obtain only a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperatures. But what choice is there for these peoples, who are faced with becoming climate refugees? In this, they are challenged by some of the same sorts of migration challenges as elsewhere, such as Ioane Teitiota’s deportation from NZ back to Kiribati (That’s pronounced Kiribass, if you aren’t sure)

The New York Times’ piece on the Marshalls reminds us that “In the global fight over climate change, leaders of vulnerable low-lying island nations have long sought to draw attention to their plight. They have staged symbolic events like an underwater cabinet meeting, gone on hunger strikes and delivered anguished speeches [and amazing poems] to the United Nations. Those efforts have had little impact on the substance of the energy and economic policies that dictate governmental response to climate change.”

This is unfortunately not surprising in a long economic history of environmental damages imposed on such communities by the richer, more integrated economies of the globe. The Washington Post explores this in discussing how climate change adds insult upon injury for the Marshall Islands, used as an American nuclear testing site for decades and currently advertising as “Remote Pacific location … ideal for permissive safety and environmental constraints,” as a Ballistic Missile Defense Testing Site.

Kiribati still bears the scars of the Battle of Tarawa, where rusting amphibious vehicles trapped on the reef continue to rust away 72 years later and poison the lagoon (but, as ever – there are tradeoffs – some offer the most private spots on the low-lying atoll), and lost soldiers’ remains are under investigation in a race against time and tide. Most marginal societies can recount similar tales of environmental injustices, with climate change threatening  a final irreversible fate in a long progression of damages and degradation.

Rusted LVTs on the Tarawa Beach:

Yes, populations are small and economic opportunities are limited. The British left Kiribati in 1979 – just as the Phosphorus mining became uneconomic – with a small revenue equalization fund in compensation. The 33 islands do create the world’s largest marine Exclusive Economic Zone – over 3.5 million sq. km. of prime tuna waters – but funds, labor and equipment for monitoring and enforcement mean the potential revenues are highly dissipated. Similar woes are widespread across the communities.

But there are more subtle conventions that also impact decision-making and outcomes affecting these marginalized societies:

Consider, for a moment, the standard map itself divides and marginalizes Oceania and Arctic communities even more than the traditionally expressed North-South disparities. In our 2 dimensional representations of our 3D spherical world, how often do we examine these views:

An Arctic-Centric world…


Or Pacific-Centered:

world wall maps political world australia centred blue ocean style

So – it’s important to keep in mind that a small tilt of the head can mean a big shift in perception – and this keeps me hopeful that these many diverse and unique communities can help us better explore, understand, and preserve the margins of our planet’s systems.

Note images are linked to original sources.