By Amanda McKenzie, national coordinator of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
Along with 10 other young Australians, I traveled to Bali to bring the voice of Australia’s youth to the U.N. Climate Change Conference. We have been reminding world leaders that our future is threatened. However, my personal concerns about my future were eclipsed when a young woman named Claire from the small island nation of Kiribati stood up in front of 200 international youth and told her story. For Claire, climate change is more than a future concern. It is right here, right now.
Youth from all over the world, including Australia, had come together to share their stories and successes in raising awareness and taking action on climate change in their home countries. Every participant was humbled by Claire, who offered her heartfelt thanks to all of us for our efforts. Her home, only two meters above sea level, is rapidly being inundated by the rising ocean. Two islands that make up Kiribati have already been submerged. Claire’s island, home, culture, and future are all under imminent threat from climate change. It is likely that her entire nation will have to be evacuated in the near future. Where do you go when your country simply vanishes?
Claire’s voice, and the voices of the Pacific, are largely absent from the U.N. Climate Change Conference. These nations are small in terms of their size, population, wealth, and greenhouse-gas emissions. That’s the irony: those who have contributed the least — and benefited the least from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels — will suffer first. Kiribati will be underwater before the bulk of the Australian population realizes that climate change is the most serious issue on the planet.
Claire’s experience also illustrates the fallacy in calling a two-degree rise in temperature "dangerous climate change." Climate change is clearly dangerous for people like Claire right now.
Global temperature has risen 0.7 degrees, leading to dangerous consequences for people all over the world — whether it was the European heat wave killing over 35,000, or the drought that has devastated the lives of Australian farmers. A two-degree rise in global temperature is not where things get dangerous — two degrees is falling off a cliff into global climate catastrophe. It is accepted that a two-degree warming is where we can expect to see irreversible changes in natural systems that support human life. Two degrees may trigger “runaway climate change” where natural systems will contribute to global warming.
However, we can’t be sure that two degrees is where we will find the cliff edge — it may be well before. Recent research suggests that a 1.5- to 1.7-degree increase in global temperature is likely to cause the melting of both the West Antarctic and the Greenland ice sheets. If these enormous blocks of ice melt, global sea level is expected to rise by at least 13 meters.
The Pacific Islanders’ experiences offer us a window into our potential future. Seventy percent of the world’s population lives on coastal plains, and 11 of the world’s 15 largest cities are on the coast or estuaries.
The world could become a very different place.
We are walking blindfolded toward the edge of a cliff. We don’t know where the edge is. All we know is that with ever-growing greenhouse-gas emissions, we are getting closer and closer.