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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Climate Justice

For small island states in the Pacific, the factors that characterize climate-induced migration – the inability to return, collective migration in large numbers, and the predictable need for migration – might all occur in concert.  These factors' coincidence militates for a rapid and comprehensive global response.  With their relative lack of responsibility for climate change and relative poverty, Pacific climate migrants and their home states have a particular moral, and perhaps legal, claim on wealthier and higher-polluting industrialized countries (Burkett, 2011:3).  

Climate justice, frequently invoked within the framework of social justice, highlights the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized human populations who bear the brunt of its consequences despite being least responsible for its causation.

Indigenous peoples may argue that, despite contributing the least to greenhouse gas emissions, they are most at risk due to their dependence on and close relationship with the local environment and its resources (Crate & Nuttall, 2009:12).

The COP 6 meeting in 2000 marked a significant milestone with the inauguration of the first 'Climate Justice Summit' as an official side event. While government delegates and mainstream environmental groups deliberated over market-based 'solutions' to global warming, attendees of the Climate Justice Summit convened to exchange lived experiences of the profound impacts of climate change. Speakers passionately detailed the human rights violations they faced and the environmental devastation wrought by these changes (Karliner, 2000). For many, the blame for climate change lay squarely on the shoulders of nations and corporations entrenched in an economic model that prioritizes pollution and profit over people and the planet.

Global warming is primarily a product of global capitalism, characterized by a constant drive for profits and an ever-increasing emphasis on production and consumption.  From the perspective of political ecology, capitalism is inherently at odds with the environment, which it views as a bottomless pit of resources and as a receptacle for the waste products of production- the quantity of which tends to grow because of the intrinsic need of capitalism to relentlessly expand and increase profits (Baer & Singer, 2009:34).

Kiribati has experienced similar behavior from other countries in its colonial history. Prior to Tuvalu and Kiribati becoming independent nations, they were known as the Ellis and Gilbert Islands, respectively. These islands were colonized by Great Britain, primarily for the extraction of phosphate resources found on Banaba Island.

Banaba is a raised island situated 180 kilometers east of the Gilbert Chain in the Central Pacific Ocean. Initially, this island held little value to anyone other than the native population until Albert Ellis discovered the composition of Banaba’s land.

For a long time, I had speculated that this rock had rich deposits of lime and decided to test it…  I walked into the director’s room a week later and presented the test results.  The analyst had recorded a ninety percent phosphoric acid reaction… the purest phosphate yet discovered in a natural state by man (Grimble, 1952: 15).  

Albert Ellis's discovery of the extraordinarily rich phosphate deposits on Banaba prompted him to negotiate a deal with the Banabans, allowing for the mining of their island for the next 999 years at a meager annual fee of £50. This colonization was justified under the pretext of 'natural resource excavation,' and the mining operations continued until Banaba could no longer sustain human habitation.

Subsequently, the Banabans were compelled to relocate to Rabi Island in Fiji. However, upon their arrival, many faced dire circumstances, including hunger and illness, stemming from the unfamiliar environmental conditions. The abrupt transition to a new land brought immense hardship and suffering to the Banaban community.

The memories of past relocations and the hardships they brought are still vivid among the elders who remain today. Despite facing dire environmental conditions, relocation is not a preferred option for them. Despite a significant portion of my family having relocated to New Zealand, my grandmother, at the time of writing, was adamant about not leaving her homeland.

Our home was modest in size, and while it comfortably accommodated more people than the norm by U.S. standards, the prospect of starting afresh in a foreign country where the I-Kiribati language was not spoken and cultural disparities were pronounced was daunting. Moreover, the unfamiliarity of winter and the absence of familiar foods weighed heavily on her. Consequently, she chose to remain in our homeland.

Since then, she has passed away but remains interred in our land. With each passing day, the threat of king tides eroding the land, to the extent of washing away burial sites into the ocean, looms large. Yet, for the time being, she rests in the place she called home.

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