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Islanders flee rising sea levels

As worries about climate change grow, a community in the Pacific Ocean is already dealing with the effects.

The NGO’s name means “riding the waves” in the local language. Their destinations are blocks of Bougainville coastal land provided by the Catholic Church.

Rakova gave up her job with the NGO alliance, Oxfam, three years ago to set up Tulele Peisa. She said, “Our whole culture is at stake. Our people, especially the older ones, don’t want to move, but there is really no alternative.” (For an account of the Carterets’ plight, check out “Ursula’s Story.”)

The islanders, said Rakova, blame people in industrialized countries for what is happening. “We don’t fully understand the science,” she admited, “but we’re angry about reports that carbon dioxide emissions may be causing climate change.”

If the wider world is indeed causing problems for the Carterets it won’t be the first time.

During the Pacific War (1941-45) fighting between U.S.-Australian forces and Japanese invaders brought much devastation. The islanders ruefully tell the story that the Carterets were once seven islands, but bombing obliterated one island, turning them into a six-island atoll. (Some sources outside the islands are more sceptical, claiming that over the years islanders have reduced their available land by using explosives to carve out new fishing areas.)

Whatever the truth, latest scientific studies by institutes in Australia, the region’s largest power, point to measurements that don’t encourage islanders who might want to stay and continue fighting the ocean’s surge. Australia’s National Tidal Center, based in Adelaide, runs the only sophisticated tidal gauges for 12 of the 14 Pacific island nations. Their measurements show that western Pacific areas nearer the equator, like the Carterets, appear to be experiencing sea-level rises of about 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) a year, compared with an average global rise of about 3 mm (0.12 inches).

Meantime, satellite altimeter readings, says the tidal center, show evidence over the past decade of what it calls pan-Pacific “slosh”: Sea-levels “have risen in the southwest Pacific and fallen in the northwest Pacific since 1992.”

In a recent report, Oxfam warns that by 2050, 150 million people may be displaced globally because of climate change, half of them in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The potential for climate displacement is especially a concern for low-lying atoll nations in Polynesia and Micronesia," the report says. "With land areas just meters above sea level and narrow strips of land just 50-100m [160-320 feet] wide in some atolls, there is no retreat to higher ground from the ravages on the coast. The potential for forced displacement among the Pacific islands population of about 8 million people demands urgent debate."

Certainly, the Carterets islanders are stirring the discussion. Said Rakova: “The PNG government allocated 2 million kina ($783,000) to pay for more land in Bougainville, but we have not seen one cent of this so far.

“We are more than a little worried. But above all, we’re sad. We’re losing our ancestral home, our culture, our identity, our whole life. We hope the world is listening.

“Climate change is not just about statistics, not just about science. Climate change is about human rights and the vulnerability of all people on small Pacific islands.”