Event Report: Voices from the Climate Front line

Australians have known about climate change since 1988. In 1989 at the South Pacific Forum, the then Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke found himself in discussion with leaders who worried (rightly, as it turned out) that their island nations were in danger [see below].  The intervening 28 years have been ones of promises broken, hopes dashed, while scientists become hoarse with their warnings.

But through all this,  one set of voices have been almost entirely absent – voices of indigenous people, especially women.  Last night at the Hawke Centre in Adelaide, two of those voices were heard.

The event, co-organised by Oxfam Australia and the Hawke Centre, was called ‘Voices from the Climate Front line’.  The first speaker was Lia Yorktown, from SEED.  SEED? SEED is

Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network.
We are building a movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people for climate justice with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
Our vision is for a just and sustainable future with strong cultures and communities, powered by renewable energy.
Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity, but we also know it is an opportunity to create a more just and sustainable world.

She spoke, nervously at first but with increasing confidence, about how she had become involved in climate change campaigning while studying at University, of how her father and uncle, who live in the Torres Strait, have noticed more and more bleached coral, with king tides now flooding houses and streets.   She showed this video

And this one

Funding sea walls a reality


Dear Matafeile Peinem

On the question of sea level rise, and the probable need for relocation, she eloquently lamented “It should not have come to this… our culture is being taken from us again.”

The second speaker was  Jacynta Fuamenta of 350Pacific You probably know them from the kayak blockade of the world’s largest coal port, Newcastle, last year.  She also spoke  effectively, of her mental map of the Pacific having flipped from a place to which to retire to somewhere to flee from.  She gave the example of graves having to be relocated, again and again. Interestingly, she said that climate change awareness had now exploded in the South Pacific, but there was a very definite lag/absence in her large Australian-based family, none of whom accepted the science.

She spoke warmly of the “We are not drowning, we are fighting” slogan, and the recent “Pray for the Pacific” campaign across 23 countries.

Finally Simon Bradshaw of Oxfam spoke. He opened by thanking the previous two speakers, saying rightly that they were voices we need to hear that bring sanity and urgency to the national debate.  He too spoke about the impacts (citing Cyclones Pam and Winston and their impact on Fiji), before turning to last year’s Paris agreement (just for  the record, I was sceptical beforehand, and I think the joyous reception says more about the psychological needs of long-term campaigners than the likely outcomes of the ‘deal‘).  [The deal is coming into force, and Australia has yet to sign.ratify [Thanks to the person who pointed out that Australia in fact signed in April, and has indicated it will ratify by the end of the year].  Australia has no plan to hit its 2030 target (26-28% reduction on 2005 levels.  Which, by the way, is totally inadequate).  The Chinese etc are asking pointed questions about this]

Bradshaw pointed to the ‘catastrophically wide’ gap between the fine words and the requirements of keeping below the allegedly ‘safe’ two degrees of warming.  He also argued that solving climate change and ending poverty went hand-in-hand  [the Coal industry has been trying to position itself as the only way out of energy poverty for the developing world, with Prime Ministerial approval].

There was only time for three questions.

I asked the women ‘what does practical solidarity from someone living in suburban Adelaide look like?’ and Simon ‘what have we been doing wrong these last 28 years?’.

Ms Yorktown replied “an understanding of the impacts.” She said she liked AYCC and SEED working as partners, rather than in a paternalistic manner. She pointed to the building of capacity in communities and asked us to check closely the policies of the parties we might vote for.

Ms Fuamatu urged people to get oud and so thing, and not to waste time/energy on people who don’t believe  that climate change is happening.

Dr Bradshaw pointed to effective organising, power-building and a connected global movement

The second question may have come from a climate denier (if so, he was unusually subdued about it), and was simply ‘how much sea level rise has already been recorded’?

Simon Bradshaw fielded that one, saying that for various reasons the amount is disproportionately in the tropics, and 10 to 30cm, with estimates for the rest of the century varying from 70cm to several meters.

The final question, from a retired geography teacher who said he’d been  teaching about climate change since well before 1988 (I spoke to him afterwards and he said it was from the 1960s), asked if the speed of the changes would overtake efforts to deal with it.

Bradshaw argued that there needs to be more effort into adaptation, but also an end to fossil fuel investments.

Ms Yorkstown was more pessimistic (rightly so, in my opinion), but argued that while in some places relocation would be necessary, others could still be saved.


I am exquisitely aware that I am a white male with a larger than average carbon footprint (it’s the now-annual flights to see the aged parentals), and that my following comments will be seen in this light. But I still think we need to talk about what could have been done differently at the event.  That is not to cast aspersions on the hard work and dedication of the organisers and the speakers.

We need to do things differently, and the (rather short) meeting format of speakers followed by a few questions has not worked to ‘build a movement’.

Before the event, it would have been good to encourage people to turn to the person next to them/behind them and introduce themselves.  Part of the problem of the West is loneliness and atomisation. Events like this can help break that down.

I think the speeches were great, and it’s really important to hear first-hand about the impacts climate change is already having (there is a tendency to think that it’s all about polar bears in the year 2050). Nonetheless, we only had 75 minutes (I personally think 90 minutes is a better length).  Given that the audience was self-selected as people who give a damn and probably know a bit already, then might not the speeches have been slightly shorter, with a recap of impacts and then focussed around questions like (to pick two at random) “what does practical solidarity look like?” “what do we need to do differently in the future”.  [And yes, this is a white minority world man telling majority world women what to say and how long to say it for, I know.]

If there had been more time for questions, then to get around the ‘male hands go up first’ (as happened last night), then this could have been done.

Other observations

a) The audience was pretty chronologically advantaged/follicly challenge (and overwhelmingly white, even by Adelaide’s standards).  This may be more a reflection of the demographics of the Hawke Centre’s email list rather than public concern among the younger folk.

b) We haven’t thrown our bodies on the gears very effectively, especially we old farts.

1989 Newspaper article

Burrell, S. 1989. Environment Dominates Forum. Australian Financial Review, 12 July.
The 20th South Pacific Forum closed yesterday with environmental issues and their impact on regional economies emerging as the new focus of concern.
The Australian Government has made the environment the political focal point of its effort, linking these initiatives with its emerging emphasis on economic issues as the key point of foreign policy engagement in the region.
The key outcome was the Tarawa Declaration, aimed at banning drift net fishing in the South Pacific.
Despite some reservations from island nations increasingly dependent on Japanese aid and proceeds from fishing rights in their waters, the declaration was signed yesterday at a ceremony on Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati.
The declaration, which was slightly modified from the original Australian proposal, said that drift netting violated international law and called on Japan and Taiwan to abandon immediately their operations in the South Pacific. It also called on the world community to support a convention banning the use of drift nets in the Pacific zone.
But doubts remain about the enforceability and effectiveness of any ban in halting the potential exhaustion of the South Pacific tuna fishery – estimated at only two years if present rates of fishing continue.
Other environmental initiatives included the promise by Australia of a$6.25 million, five-year project to monitor the impact of the greenhouse effect on the region, and further moves towards a ban on chemical weapons.
The greenhouse initiative prompted discussion of the possible long-term effects of climatic change and rising sea levels on some of the tiny, low-lying island nations of the forum – including the possibility of moving whole populations.
Forum leaders played this down as a remote future possibility, reflecting concern that excessive focus on the relocation issue could deter potential investors and aid donors.
But the issue was raised by a number of nations most likely to be affected, including Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands and even Fiji, with the question of the sovereignty of displaced governments in their new locations being the key discussion point.
Both Australia and New Zealand indicated that they and the rest of the world would undoubtably be prepared to take humanitarian action in moving people driven out by rising waters.
On the economic front, the forum considered a number of reports on regional trade and economic development issues, with the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, focusing on the importance for the region of the multilateral trade negotiations under the GATT Uruguay Round.
Mr Hawke also briefed the forum leaders on his initiative for an OECD-type organisation for the Pacific Rim countries.
Although most of the smaller forum nations will not be members initially, it is understood that the director of the Forum Secretariat, Mr Henry Naisali, will be given observer status at the November conference in Canberra to discuss the new body.


One thought on “Event Report: Voices from the Climate Front line

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: