By Chuck Dayton
Chuck Dayton, retired environmental lawyer and renowned Minnesota conservationist, is currently on a two and a half-month research trip in the Central South Pacific to understand and bear witness to the impact of climate change and sea level rise on local populations and coral reefs.
The Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia, in the middle of the South Pacific, consist of narrow oval rings of coral land, surrounding coral lagoons. The land averages about five feet above sea level, but it slopes toward the central lagoon, where people live. There it is only two feet above high tide.
This is a place of coconut trees, breaking surf, coral reefs, and men and women with faces right out of Gauguin paintings. I have just visited an island town of five hundred people, who have one of the smallest carbon footprints possible given a relatively modern lifestyle, yet who are predicted to suffer the greatest loss from human induced climate change: they will lose their homeland to the rising seas.
They are completely off the grid, because there is no grid, only solar electricity. They have no water source other than rainwater collected in cisterns from their roofs. There are only a handful of land vehicles (there is really no place to drive). It is a clean, beautiful and happy place. In early morning, folks walk the streets and shake hands with literally everyone, including we white guys. The local teacher says that life is good here, despite the collapse of the black pearl industry that made a few of the islanders and a lot of Japanese wealthy, despite the lack of jobs, and the need to go to other islands beyond sixth grade. Many have TV, some have cell phones, and some have outboard motors for fishing. There is a true community, where everybody knows everybody, and life is friendly and pleasant, if economically marginal by our standards.
They have no agriculture other than coconuts and backyard gardens, no native food other than fish. Supply ships bring the rest. This is French territory, governed and supported from Tahiti. The houses are modern, although small and plain. There are streets and a school and a church; they have a supply ship each week to bring consumer goods. They are close to an American/European life style.
Their carbon footprint is not zero, nor as low as a rural Tanzanian, where I have also spent time, but it is very, very low (not because they are virtuous, but of necessity), and they are demonstrating that total use of renewable energy is possible. Our collective carbon footprint in industrialized countries is about 50 times heavier, and is about to squash them for good.
Most scientific researchers agree that we can expect, at the upper end, a five foot increase in mean sea level by the end of the century if not sooner, although the highly respected James Hansen expects at least double that, and a lot more if we pass the tipping point. (I have a scientist friend who says Hansen is usually far out and usually right.) See John Englander, High Tide on Main Street (2012).
So, it is likely that these islands will sink beneath the waves within the lifetimes of the babies that I saw being proudly carried about here.
I’m here in mid June 2013 as we sail west on the Research Vessel Llyr, a 53-foot ketch sailboat, with a family of five. Maple syrup farmers from New England, they are on a twofold mission: first to do diving surveys to document changes in coral reefs for Reef Check; second, to observe, document and analyze social and economic changes which are linked to various environmental insults, principally climate change and overfishing. This family is uniquely qualified. The Dad/Skipper, Brooks McCutchen, is a former practicing psychoanalyst turned maple syrup farmer, with lots of experience as a food producer and direct marketer. Janis Steele, the Mom, is a Ph.D. Anthropologist and former documentary filmmaker. The three boys, Connor, 18 (the First Mate), Rowan 15, and Gavin 10, all at home underwater, could not be more enthusiastic about being a real part of the project. I add what I can as an environmental advocate and lawyer, aspiring photographer, and writer.
Oddly, according the town’s leading citizens, the teacher, the police chief and the owner of the main general store, each of whom understands the problem, folks don’t talk about climate change here on this island.
It is not immediate, and they seem to prefer to live in the moment.
Perhaps that’s a worldwide phenomenon; let’s not talk or think about the unpleasant possibility that life could be radically changed, because it is a long way off, and maybe it won’t affect me. Most Americans certainly think that way. We understand that climate change is happening and why, but it remains a very low priority issue, not a political driver.
Here, however, the effects will be more destructive.
On other Pacific Islands, notably Tuvalu, plans for evacuation are underway. In Kiribati, another cluster of the same kind of low-lying islands, they are talking of buildings on stilts above the sea. There are Pacific Youth Organizations across the South Pacific, and in Kiribati there is a strong presence of Bill McKibben’s 350.org (although for some reason it doesn’t not seem to be active here in French Polynesia).
But here in the Tuamotus, as in Minnesota, life is good for the moment. Change is coming but most people would rather not think much about it.
This morning we came across the landfill pits at the edge of this “Motu” or small island. Most waste here is recycled or burned but some needs to be landfilled.
Buried waste raises the elevation of that small part of the land. So, the last person to stand on dry land on Ahe Island will probably be standing on a pile of waste. Our collective waste is pushing up their sea levels so perhaps that’s a fitting end.