Whether we’re ready or not, climate change has been intensifying at an alarming rate. As we say goodbye to another decade, it’s time we ask ourselves: How much have we done? Is that enough? Stories from some of the climate frontiers Solomon Islands and Myanmar will give you insights on the challenges and progress so far as well as the direction we should be moving toward in this new decade – before it’s too late.
The announcement of Greta Thunberg as TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year near the end of the “hottest decade in record” recognizes climate change as an issue we should be focusing on as we step into the new decade. “We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow,” the sixteen-year-old said in the TIME magazine. Greta’s Fridays for Future movement in September has initiated awareness and climate strikes around the globe, consequently turning climate change into a hot topic that people talk about.
However, little has been done to mitigate it. Sea level is still rising at an alarming rate. Populations are at risk of resettlement. Intensifying heatwave is giving way to more unpredictable weather as well as storms and wildfires, including the dire situation in Australia that has been spreading all over the news for months, and the whole ecosystem is in threat of collapse.
NASA predicts that climate change will continue over this century and beyond. The speed and magnitude of it, nevertheless, depends on the emissions we produce and the Earth’s reaction to those. In other words, how fast the climate changes and how well we can avoid the catastrophe depends on us. So it’s time we reflect on what we have done in the past decade and transition words into action in this decade – before it’s too late.
A kangaroo rushes past a burning house in Conjola, Australia, on New Year's Eve
Photo By Matthew Abbott, New York Times
In the climate frontier: Voices from Solomon Islands
Like many groups of settlements, Kwara’ae people – the biggest ethnic group in Solomon Islands – who live in the Lilisiana settlement in Malaita province have been enduring the devastating effects of climate change.
In an interview, Chief and Chairperson of the Lilisiana Climate Change Committee (LCCC) James Mao told us that sea-level rise has been threatening the livelihood of the entire settlement.
“Indeed it was only the mercy of God that we are still alive,” James exclaimed as tears fell down his eyes. “I say this because the sea is very big and can destroy this settlement any time it wants.”
It’s not the first time they face the threat of resettlement. James told us, “Our first forefathers came and first settled on the Island of Aoke, a small island close to Lilisiana and but in the sea. During those days, their people really enjoyed life at sea because the sea was friendly to them.”
But in the 1950s, things started to change. There were massive earthquakes and huge waves that frequently entered the island and destroyed their houses. From that time on, the Kwara’ae people made up their minds to move away from Island. “A lot of them moved to Ambu, while others like my grandfather left and came here to establish this Lilisiana settlement. I was born and raised here.”
“Everything was okay. And during my childhood days, we really enjoyed our life staying here,” James said. “We did notice the sea creeping into our settlement and even destroyed some trees standing along the seashore, but we thought it was just normal without knowing it was climate change.”
“We used to bury the deads near the shore without knowing that the sea level will reach that place,” James told us. It wasn’t until 2013 when the sea level actually reached that place and covered the graves that it caught the attention of both local and foreign media, writers, climate activists, and donors – even the national government visited them. Since his childhood days, the sea has moved about 40 meters further inland.
Chief James Mao in flooded Lilisiana village due to sea-level rise
Photo by Lesley Sanga
A climate change committee was formed under James Mao to address this issue. The Lilisiana Climate Change Committee (LCCC) has received a lot of support, but whether it’s enough is another problem.
They started out initiating climate change training facilitated by donors for more awareness among the villagers.
When reports were suggesting that Solomon Island might even run out of fresh water before they run out of land, the USAID from the United States visited them to discuss this issue. Shortly later, the USAID and the local group Dalgro came and installed water tanks for us.
They have also received authorities and government leaders led by their Member of Parliament (MP) for Aoke Langalanga Matthew Wale. “They came to discuss and promised to help us. But until now, nothing has been done on the ground,” James commented.
“Our hope is just slim for the government to help us. We made many calls to authorities many times to at least assist but they weren’t helpful.” There were some training programs run by the government but that’s it. But people felt that it was not enough because the village needs more physical assistance to enable them to cope with the threats of climate change.
“I can only tell the story from the past until now. But from now and into the future, I cannot tell because I don’t know what will happen to us,” James said, not very optimistic. “Our graves were already taken away and the next thing is our houses.”
“Authorities have suggested relocation for us to join the majority of our people but I’m not sure if that idea can work,” James raised his concern. “We left them to come here, stayed here for decades, and if we go back to where we come from, I don’t think our people inland will accept us anymore. If the government really wants to relocate us, they should buy land for us so that we can go and settle there.”
“For now, we will continue to live here because we don’t know what to do. We want to do something for ourselves but we don’t have the resources to do anything,” James remarked, representing the village as well as other least developed countries in the world who are facing the same struggles.
Voices from Myanmar
Not too far from Solomon Islands lies South East Asia, another area that is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Myanmar, in particular, is among the countries that suffered the most climate consequences in the period of 1996 to 2015 according to Climate Risk Index, which is not surprising if you consider the fact that it only opened up to the world in 2012 and graduated from the least developed countries list in 2018.
Myanmar has been witnessing increasingly irregular weather patterns in recent years. Some areas underwent a much longer trail of monsoon with more torrential rainfalls than ever, while other places experienced drought and extreme temperature switches. Victims who suffers the most from this unpredictable weather pattern are farmers, as well as their contribution to the country’s economy.
Climate change and agriculture
Like most of the SEA countries, Myanmar’s economy primarily depends on the agricultural sector, which, according to data from FAO, “contributes to 37.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), accounts for 25 to 30 percent of total export earnings and employs 70 percent of the labor force.”
“Farmers are especially vulnerable because they make only 3000 to 5000 Kyats (i.e., 2 to 3.3 USD) a day on average, and they get the money only when they get their harvest. Some have only one harvest per year. Some have three, which is the maximum for rice,” Tomas Derville explained. “Currently, there is not enough allocation of funds and attention from the government to mitigate climate change.”
”For people in the Yangon city who work for companies, they make money every month, so it’s easy to manage their income,” He continued. “But for farmers who make money like once every six months, if something goes wrong with the climate, the consequences are massive.”
Tomas is a climate advocate and expert who has given numerous presentations in Yangon and published an article in the Myanmar Times on climate change and agriculture. He is currently working on a documentary to explore the effects of climate change on Myanmar’s agricultural sector.
He told us that crops are supposed to grow at certain times of the year; when the temperature rises and the climate pattern becomes irregular and unpredictable, it disrupts all the processes and, consequently, the income of farmers. Not to mention, climate change also causes intensifying storms and rain that can make the crops drown. Before that, even the strength of the rain is sometimes enough to kill the plants.
It works the other way around as well: as much as climate change troubles farmers, agriculture also has a substantial amount of contribution to the climate challenge it is facing. Agriculture is directly accountable for approximately 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of it comes from pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and animal wastes regularly used by farmers.
“The Ayawaddy region has about 40% of Myanmar’s rice production, which also exports to foreign countries, but it is running out of land due to sea-level rise,” Tomas explained the detrimental relationship between climate change and agriculture. “As a result, people cut down mangroves forests to free more space for agriculture, which causes climate change to happen even faster.”
Closing the gap
In the Conyat Create office where walls highlight photographs of social issues, decorations are about recycled plastic innovations, and light illuminates positive energy, a woman-led team strives to provide sustainable solutions.
From improved communications between local communities and businesses through grievance mechanisms to advocating environmentalism and promoting sustainability within industries like energy, construction, agriculture and tourism, Conyat Create has worked on a variety of projects to create positive social impacts.
“Climate change is something that is already happening; we’ve seen the evidence. And the majority of people who are the most vulnerable in Myanmar are those who are in the agricultural sector,” Nicole Tu-Maung, the Communications Officer at Conyat Create, pointed out. “Unfortunately, they do not have many resources nor knowledge to overcome that. So someone has to step in and be the bridge, listen to the problems businesses face and give solutions that are both beneficial and sustainable.”
In December 2019, Conyat Create organized an awareness event: Eat for Climate Change. The sustainably curated four-course dinner was served at Parasol – a garden-space restaurant powered by fans instead of air-conditioners, with strict plastic codes and food waste policies, and supports environmentally-friendly small local suppliers – to demonstrate how something that may seem as trivial as a diet is a crucial step towards the climate mitigation. The funds from
Prior to that, Conyat Create also had public talks started by Tomas Derville when he was still working at Conyat Create as a way to raise awareness and educate people about climate change. Because presenting climate change as a general topic can be repetitive, Tomas thought: “Why don’t we talk about climate change from different angles?” They organized a talk every month from January of 2019 till November with a total of more than 500 attendances. Each month there’s a specific theme, and experts of related fields were invited to share their perspectives. Thus, the Climate Talks Series.
Throughout the eleven months, they have covered climate change from eleven different angles – including soil, food waste, gender, forests, water, air pollution, energy, hydropower, disaster resilience, cities, and tourism – which is extremely informative and insightful for locals.
Forestry expert sharing information in a Climate Talks Series
Photo By Conyat Create
Vision for the new decade: Starting from the bottom of the pyramid
It’s all becoming more apparent. With so many emerging awareness campaigns all around the world, more people are recognizing the threat and learning the issue. “But that’s not enough,” Tomas said. “As long as our emissions are not going down, it is not enough.”
Nobody has a magical solution to fix it in an instant. Not you. Not me. Not the very prestigious NASA. Not the genius mind Einstein, even if he were still alive. And not the sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg either.
We have learned from the previous decade that despite there being a lot of initiatives already, there are also obstacles – the biggest one being the unwillingness or inability from the top of the pyramid to allocate enough resources to combat climate change, reasons ranging from business interests to merely no interest at all. As a result, those who suffer the most are people from the bottom of the pyramid.
Waiting for the top of the pyramid to start a change would not be wise; for there is no time to spare – remember, it is a race. Our hustle from the bottom of the pyramid can make a difference as well. Now that the issue has earned publicity, thanks to Greta, it’s time to gather more people and amplify our voices. Speak up. Hustle the issue. Fight for it in our own ways. And influence people around us to fight for it.
“If a large portion of the population become activists constantly voicing out their passion and concerns,” Tomas suggested, “the government and people of power on the top can no longer ignore the issue, like a lot of them are doing right now.” Whether it’s multi-million companies selling their products or political campaigns attempting to extend their political party, they have to start showing interest to people’s concern, making environmental choices and policies in an attempt to win people’s recognition, even if it’s simply out of business interest. And that would be a game-changer to every other part of the pyramid.