Climate change is not some far-away concept for the peoples of the Pacific; it’s impacting on their lives now and they need our support now. That was the resounding message at a recent seminar in Sydney which focussed on the serious situation facing many Pacific Island nations.
Close to 100 people gathered on October 11 for a half-day seminar – “Pope Francis, us, and our common home in the Pacific” – hosted by a coalition of Catholic religious congregations that have strong ties with the Pacific.
A sub-group of the advocacy organisation Pacific Calling Partnership, this coalition of 15 congregations of religious women and men, which includes the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, is exploring ways towards “achieving a congregational voice” on climate change in the Pacific, especially for the most vulnerable.
Those attending the seminar heard first-hand accounts about the impact of climate change in the Pacific.
“Climate change in the Solomon Islands is real and happening now,” said Dominican Sister Teresa Tebaia.
In her presentation, Teresa spoke about the impact of climate change in the Solomons and the adaptations being made. She said that most of the more than 500,000 people of this Melanesian country live in villages, grow their own food and catch fish. ‘King’ tides and more intensive cyclones are causing flash flooding, erosion and salt contamination of freshwater wells and gardens, she said. Logging is also causing soil erosion.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility to take action to prevent further damage caused by climate change. What are we going to do about it?” Teresa asked those gathered.
In Kiribati, where several Australian Catholic religious congregations have a strong presence, the signs of climate change are disturbingly similar.
During a group presentation from the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (the OLSH Sisters), several sisters also spoke about the impact of rising sea levels, ‘king’ tides, flash flooding and salt water contamination of freshwater wells.
They recounted their experience when giant waves, during a ‘king’ tide earlier this year, pounded the community of Betio, causing extensive flooding and damage to buildings, food crops and freshwater sources. The sisters described it as a frightening experience for the local community.
“The most terrible experience I have had in my life was when a huge wave bashed the hospital in Betio due to the rising tide,” said Sister Maria Tarita.
“This experience and many others raised a big question in us,” said Sister Bina Kooka. “What is happening to the land that we love so much? It is not safe anymore.”
Bina continued later: “This change in climate affected our lands and is destroying it… It is time to wake up and educate the young ones, especially our young sisters, to be strong voices for our Kiribati people; to tell other countries that what they are doing to make life easier with fossil fuel use could result in our country disappearing”.
At their general chapter in 2014, the OLSH Sisters, after listening to their Kiribati members, decided to make a specific commitment to climate change.
Sister Philippa Murphy said that decisions were made to accompany their Kiribati sisters, to help develop a deeper understanding of climate change and its anticipated impact, and to find ways in which they could advocate for their people about this issue.
In her presentation, Good Samaritan Sister Geraldine Kearney, a long-time climate justice campaigner, spoke about the link between climate change and human rights. She outlined the efforts of various international meetings to change polices, some of which she herself had attended.
“The first climate justice meeting was held in 2000; it’s now 15 years too long. That was held in conjunction and beside some of the major meetings that were going on at the time,” said Geraldine.
At the end of next month, the much-anticipated United Nations’ climate change conference in Paris will begin. Geraldine believes it’s a crucial meeting. Citing the words of Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, Geraldine said: “Now is not the moment to manage expectations or get cold feet – 2015 is the moment to catalyse a transformation – and achieve the social order the Universal Declaration aspired to. Now is the time for climate justice”.
Other speakers at the October 11 seminar included Missionary of the Sacred Heart Father Claude Mostowik, Franciscan Sister Joanne Fitzsimons, the Pacific Calling Partnership’s Maria Tiimon Chi-Fang and Catholic Earthcare Australia’s Tess Corkish.
The coalition of 15 Catholic religious congregations is committed to building on the success of their first public gathering. They are in the process of launching a new website – “Pacific Climate Watch” – and are urging all people of good will to participate in next month’s Peoples’ Climate Marches (November 27-29).
“[We are] committed to action,” said Geraldine.
“The committee will be meeting early next month to take further steps to continue to stand and shout if we must for climate justice for the most vulnerable. We cannot, in conscience, not heed the cries of these our brothers and sisters and not be accountable.
“This is the time to act, especially in the lead up to climate talks in Paris,” she said.