Dispatch from the climate front line

Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, infamous for its detention centre, is incredibly beautiful and exceptionally vulnerable. It’s a place where global and local politics collide, sometimes violently, and not just over immigration policy, but also in the fraught terrain of climate change.

Manus is a climate change snowglobe, a panorama which replicates in miniature its sweeping conflicts and wicked problems. It’s home to logging operations that, apart from wreaking social havoc, contribute to climate impacts to which Manus is so desperately vulnerable – and communities there are finding it no easier to extricate the island from logging than the rest of the world is from fossil fuels. Corporate interests, government inability or indecision and limited resources make it hard to visualise a safe future.

Manusians work hard to adapt to global warming impacts. But the island is contending with failing global diplomacy that is not adequately mitigating climate change or producing enough funding for adaptation.

Some think that climate change is impossibly abstract. Jonathan Franzen is the latest in this line of thinking, arguing that climate activism distracts from local conservation. What makes most sense to him is to back away from on the global threat and focus instead on the people, wildlife and communities closest to him. For Manusians, however, climate change is a struggle as real and as concrete as the fight for Franzen’s birds. Manus is a model of how the local interacts with the global, and the abstract with the concrete.

There are islands off the coast of Manus that are so low and flat they would struggle to stay viable even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases right now. Local children talk about it at school and, when they are pondering what they will be when they grow up, they also wonder where they will live when their homes are claimed by the sea. Currently, the island’s population is 60,000 – and 40,000 residents live on the coast.

One of the authors of this article lives with climate change every day and knows all too well the rising tide of crisis and fear that it brings. In December 2008, when Manus was preparing to celebrate Christmas, Manus was hit by King Tides.

There was sea level rise to 3 metres and waves to more than 10 metres. The bashing waves came over the land and went under or crashed through people’s houses.

The people were frightened – they have never seen such a disaster, at least in the last 80 years. I was around and I had never seen that – and my father never told me any stories about something this unusual. When disaster struck, families fled upwards with their clothes, bedding and utensils and watched the falling coconut trees from up the hills. The waters rose to more than a meter in most places, and we saw ducks swimming and chickens flying away; children were paddling canoes on areas which were once dried land. Some escaped to the roofs of houses or hung on coconut trees searching for refuge.

The King Tide has since washed away 30 metres of sand from the shorelines – the beaches have never recovered. The reefs close to the shorelines, home to fish species, were destroyed by the bashing waves and strong currents. On land, food crops like bananas and vegetables were destroyed and the soil is now polluted with salt water and is no longer good for crops. The pooled waters, a good breeding ground, means mosquito populations have increased and malaria has risen.

Tribal leaders of Ahus Island (just off the coast of Manus) reflected afterwards that:

Climate change is real. We experience climate change. We see it, we feel it, and we talk about it. We recognise the negative impacts of climate change on the livelihood and plight of 700 Ahus men, women and children currently living on this small atoll which is about 700 meters long and 500 meters in width, and this island is gradually eroded away by the effects of sea level rise and changes in weather patterns.

We as tribal chiefs cannot sit back and watch our Island to disappear before our naked eyes. We are most concerned about the livelihood of our future generations and therefore we must act now in our lifetime to save our Island, our sons, daughters and our grand-children.

We need to learn, as Naomi Klein suggests, from local problems but also from local struggles for justice. Climate change is, clearly, a moral issue. We all know these things: industrialised countries should accept their responsibility and, in addition to mitigating their emissions, make adequate funding available for community-based organisations for front-line adaptation work (instead of wriggling out of their obligations).

But beyond these questions of global justice, Manus also teaches us that climate change does not ‘distract’ us from local issues. Climate change is a local issue. It is inseparable from other local threats, not just to the environment but to social solidarity. It is made concrete through its impact on basic minimum needs – nutritious food, easy access to clean water and shelter for the poor and the ‘have-nots’. The marginalised, the rejected and the most climate vulnerable groups (women, children and people with disabilities) experience climate change first and worst – and they are the same people that experience economic injustice first and worst. Climate change forces us towards structural economic change, recognising that we are not suffering because of the innate limitations of the human condition but because of the economic systems that we have created.

So we need justice and polluters need to pay. But capital from wealthy countries alone can’t buy the sustainability of community livelihoods. We must restructure our economies so that local communities can own and sustain climate adaptations, through management of their natural resources, community-based adaptation and working with traditional institutions and governance. We can learn from Manus, and from local struggles the world over, to confront climate change and earn ourselves some hope.


Gabriel Kulwaum

Dr Gabriel Kulwaum is a PhD graduate from Queensland University, and now a farmer and fisherman in the village. He is a front-line climate and environment conservation activist and has been working for TNC as Climate Change Coordinator for the last 4 years in Manus PNG.

More by Gabriel Kulwaum ›

Susie Byers

Susie previously worked on climate change for the Australian aid program and now works in the trade union movement. Susie tweets at @Susie_Byers.

More by Susie Byers ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays