Tokelau: canary in the climate change coalmine

2 May 2016
Prof. Jim Skea (centre) with the Tokelau climate change team, Mrs Paula Faiva and Dr Penehuro Lefale.
One of the United Nations leading climate scientists was in Wellington, New Zealand this week where he was the special guest at a Pacific community meeting convened by Victoria University of Wellington (VUW).

Held at Pasifika Haos yesterday, Professor Jim Skea, one of the Co-Chairs of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed he travelled all the way from London for the chance to meet with Pacific communities “to learn from you about what some of the priorities might be for IPCC.”

It was Tokelau’s statement that summarised the voice Prof Skea came to New Zealand to hear. Delivered by Mrs Paula Faiva, Tokelau’s head of climate change, Tokelau’s statement contextualised and translated the Pacific situation to the Westernised perspective, the world that Prof Skea and many of the IPCC scientists live and are familiar with.

“Like canaries in the coalmines of yore, low lying islands like ours in the midst of the world’s biggest ocean face the possibility of extinction. Tokelau is the world’s canaries in the climate change coal mines – an early warning system of the danger that is about to happen.”

A ‘canary in a coal mine’ is an advanced warning of some danger. The metaphor originates from the times when miners used to carry caged canaries while at work; if there was any methane or carbon monoxide in the mine, the canary would die before the levels of the gas reached those hazardous to humans.

“But we are no longer just the canaries in the climate change coal mines – we are, already, the victims. We have suffered enough and must not suffer further from a problem we did not create,” continued Mrs Faiva.

“We are in a race against time. The 1.5oC is almost upon us, if not already, given what the world has already emitted to the atmosphere.  But we can avoid this ‘tipping point’ if we change our course now.

“And this is where events like today are significantly important and matter in the earthly scheme of things.

“Although the Paris Agreement is a non-binding treaty, we believe in the human spirit. We pin our hopes and aspirations on the international community to do their part to limit global warming by 2100 to well below 1.5oC as compared to pre-industrial levels.

“To accomplish this, each nation needs to set ambitious nationally determined commitments (not contributions) to reduce their emissions, provides honest and transparent updates and reporting each year. 

“Tokelau is determined to right the wrongs of the past. We are determined to do our part to steer the world away from fossil fuels and towards a low carbon future. “

“As the Secretary General of the UN, Mr Ban Ki-moon told the gathering at the UN headquarters in New York last week, ‘The era of consumption without consequences is over’.”

To emphasise Tokelau’s position in the fight against climate change and direction it wants the IPCC to take Mrs Faiva gave Tokelau’s support to the following:

“We reaffirm our full support to the Paris Agreement.

“We welcome the preparations of the Special Report on 1.5oC and the upcoming IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6).

“Tokelau strongly recommends that researchers and scientists from Tokelau and other Small Islands must be part of both IPCC assessment reports. 

“Tokelau is willing to work with other Small Islands and relevant development partners to ensure the participation of our researchers and scientists in the future work of the IPCC.”
Professor Jim Skea addressing the VUW meeting on 28 April 2016.

The IPCC is the world’s leading scientific authority on climate change. It coordinates the efforts of thousands of scientists from around the world providing an internationally accepted authority on climate change, producing reports, which have the agreement of leading climate scientists and the consensus of participating governments. 

One of the key reports the IPCC is tasked to produce by 2018, is one that looks at how global temperatures can be held to a rise of 1.5oC and what the impact might be on sea level rises, the bleaching of corals and biodiversity. 1.5oC marks the point, many scientists say, is where there is real danger of serious “tipping points” in the world’s climate.

Temperatures have already risen 1oC and show little sign of slowing and makes the IPCC 2018 report critical to how the world fights climate change which low-lying Pacific islands say could lead to their extinction.

But even acknowledging the importance of the IPCC and its massive influence on the climate change negotiations as well as provider of ways in which the world can respond to fight the climate change threat, the voice of small island states in the South West Pacific region is virtually unheard of at the IPCC.

That is the main reason for Professor Skea agreeing to accept an invitation to a separate event, the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSN) to launch its report: ‘Transition to a Low Carbon economy for New Zealand’. It was on the back of that invitation that the “chance to meet people from the South West Pacific” and “to get a feed in from each of the regions of the world as to what people think might be the priorities for the next IPCC cycle” that he came. To ask and hopefully year “What are the questions that IPCC could helpfully address” from the Pacific (which is part of the IPCC’s sixth global region, the South West Pacific that includes Australia and New Zealand).

“And also to ask another question, how can we better engage with scientists and academics from the South West Pacific region as well.”

Professor Skea at the end of the meeting couldn’t have been happier after hearing Tokelau's statement delivered by our delegate Paula Faiva.

“I and my co-author colleague live in cities of millions of people. I live in London, and what that means is that people who live in cities don’t really understand what goes on in Small Island States. So I come here knowing what I do not know and I come here with all humility to learn from you about what some of the priorities might be for IPCC.”

He commented, “I have found this to be incredibly useful. I have heard things both about the substantial content of things for example the relationship between transportation and economic development. But I’ve also heard things about process and how at the IPCC end, we could work to facilitate better engagement from this region.

“But I hope that with everyone getting together it will spark a few ideas about how institutions in the region could work a bit better. Because IPCC can try to pull people in, but we need you to push people in as well to make it work. And I think that is quite important.

“The last thing I want to say is that its great to get people together in a meeting like this as you get a feel good factor about how its all onwards and upwards and its going better but to make it actually happen you need to make a record of it and act on the kinds of recommendations that come out.

“And we will write up the report and pull it together for people to see.”

Mrs Faiva confirmed, “Through the kind agreement of Professor Skea, Tokelau’s additional observations will be given to the IPCC Secretariat, for consideration as part of the upcoming IPCC reports.”

By Lealaiauloto A.F. Tauafiafi.