Carteret Islands

Carteret Islands; ground zero for climate change

“Climate change is not just about statistics. Climate change is not just about science. Climate change is about human rights.”

– Ursula Rakova, Founder and Director of Tulele Peisa

Behold the ravishingly beautiful Carteret Islands—an atoll of six low-lying islands not far from Papua, New Guinea, in the southwest Pacific Ocean. The Carteret Islands are more than eight thousand miles away from where I sit as I write this post, and, incredibly, some of them are disappearing. Not long ago a distance of thousands of miles would have made it easy to overlook the human and environmental tragedy unfolding on Carteret—but not anymore. The age of information sharing has made it possible to witness firsthand the stories of how people’s lives are being upended by the effects of global warming and climate change—even in the most remote of places like Carteret.

The Carteret Islands have been inhabited for more than one thousand years. But now, as the land is being swallowed by the rising sea, the islands’ communities are grappling with an uncertain future.

It’s been said that the Carteret islanders are the world’s first official climate-change refugees. Through no fault of their own, they have become the first wave in what scientists predict will become a tidal wave of global dislocations and humanitarian crises caused by global warming and environmental degradation.

Forced to abandon their ancestral homelands due to food shortages, rising sea levels, sinking shorelines, and the dangers of storm surges and king tides, the islanders face life-altering choices resulting from economic and political decisions beyond their control. In the video below, their anger and sadness is heartbreaking. The choice for them is clear. They can stay and watch the islands shrink and slowly disappear. Or they can evacuate, “leaving their values and conscience behind,” and try to rebuild their community on mainland Bougainville. Either way, the islanders bear a deep burden of loss.

In “Sisters on the Planet: Carteret Islands,” a video produced by Oxfam New Zealand, we meet Ursula Rakova, hero and founder of Tulele Peisa, a community organization supported by the Carteret Islands Council of Elders. With little to no government funding, Ms. Rakova decided to develop and implement an evacuation plan for Carteret’s three thousand inhabitants. As of the filming of the video, Ms. Rakova had managed the successful migration of one thousand seven hundred of her fellow islanders, even while continuing the essential work of documenting the history and traditions of the vanishing islands of the Carterets.

  • Stacy Mergenthal

    I like what Ms. Rakova said about climate change not just being about numbers and statistics, but about human rights. The island communities are just one example of people losing their land, heritage, and culture because of climate change. It seems like the ones losing most not only contributed least to the problem but don’t have a voice on the global stage either. Their plight is particularly poignant.