Our People. Our Ocean. Our Climate. A Call to Action.
“First I would like to first recognize the traditional owners of this land—the Eora people—and their ancestral leaders past and present.” So begins almost every talk at the World Park’s Congress—a nod to the way things once were. I too nod to the traditional owners of this land. And to the traditional voyagers of the sea.
On Wednesday morning, four beautiful Vaka’s—traditional Polynesian canoes—sailed into Darling Harbor in Sydney, Australia to kick off the World Parks Congress. They have been sailing for months now, navigating by the stars as they traverse the globe, carrying a message, a call to action—
—our climate is changing, seas are rising, oceans are warming and acidifying, the world is netting too many fish, storms are intensifying and eroding coasts as they crash to shore. Pacific islanders are on the front line of climate change—they have no future if the world doesn’t stand with them. And so they are calling out to the rest of us.
The Vakas were met by hundreds of dancing, drumming, waving, clapping people—many of whom are Pacific islanders now living in Australia. A suite of leaders also welcomed the canoes, including the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna; the presidents of Palau and Kiribati, Tommy Rememgesau and Anote Tong; and Director General of IUCN, Julia Marton-Lefèvre.
Despite the urgency of the Vakas’ message, the overwhelming sentiment at the docks was one of hope and unity and power. “Today is history, our moment in history,” Prime Minister Puna told the crowd. “We all make choices every day and there are many ways of doing things. But there is only one Pacific way. Our hearts beat strongly as one.” He reminded us of the progress Pacific states have made in protecting ocean resources (the Cook Islands recently declared a marine park over half of their EEZ). “Marine protected areas in the Pacific Ocean are a small but significant step towards preserving the future, a step we should be proud of. The Pacific Ocean is part of our very DNA and there’s nothing small about it.”
I am awed by the Pacific message. Kiribati recently bought land in Fiji to prepare for the likely displacement of their people due to rising seas. And yet they stand strong, a leading voice in progressive climate politics.
There’s been good news on the climate front recently. The U.S. and China, the world’s two largest carbon polluters, reached a landmark agreement last week to slow emissions—and on Saturday President Obama announced the U.S. will contribute $3 billion to a fund designed to support the poorest countries as they cope with climate change impacts. Let’s cautiously celebrate progress, but keep in mind that these steps forward address just the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg.
Our next steps need to be bold and swift, as embodied by the Vakas as they sail towards new horizons. As the President of Palau so eloquently said: “Our environment is under enormous pressure from climate change. Our sails are flags of hope—harnessing the power of wind, sun, and currents. We’re all in this together. We’re all in the same canoe. Now we need all hands on deck.”