Pacific Islanders Threatened By Climate Change Face A Legal Black Hole
For Ursula Rakova, climate change isn’t a theory—it’s a tangible threat that has been encroaching upon her ancestral home on the Carterets Islands for decades now. Global warming has forced the 2700 members of her community off the coast of Papua New Guinea to forge new lives on higher ground.
Indigenous communities make up five percent of the world’s population, and are often directly and drastically affected by climate issues, even when they aren’t forced to relocate. And those like Rakova’s whose land is disappearing from beneath their feet have to negotiate a transition without any legal framework to guide them.
“We have lost our staple food crop,” Rakova told me just ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York. “Our shorelines have eroded. We have lost at least 40 percent of our land. One of the islands in the Carterets is divided [by ocean water] and the gap continues to grow…We cannot talk about food security on the islands. It has gone.”
As ocean levels rise due to climate change, sandy atolls—chains of islands formed by coral reefs—are at risk of disappearance. The Carterets, less than four feet above sea level, are already being overun by the saltwater around around them. It’s just a matter of years, according to Rakova, before they become completely uninhabitable.