For small island nations, climate science isn’t an intellectual exercise – it’s real life

By Fatima Measham
Climate change in Kiribati. DFAT/flickr

Quite remarkably in 2016 there are still public figures who contest the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts is only the latest, facing off recently with Professor Brian Cox on ABC Q&A.

Scepticism can be a virtue of course, but it seems a step too far to conclude that the convergence of data is due to a global conspiracy. It would take a certain level of conceit to insist that one’s reading of the records is more correct than the array of institutional knowledge against it.

If it were just a matter of “discourse” then such claims might be entertaining. However, the deflection from reality is at the expense of real lives. Sometimes in the course of wrestling over evidence – with those we will never convince – the human dimensions of debate are lost.

David Katoatau, a Kiribati weightlifter, has been trying to draw attention to his island nation at competitions for a couple of years, including at the Rio Olympics. He busts moves to make people notice, but his message is a desperate one. As The Atlantic puts it, “What do you do when you’re competing for a country that might disappear? You dance.”

In 2014, Katoatau wrote: “I have never felt so helpless in my life. As a sportsman I have offered everything to my country but I cannot save it. On behalf of all the people who will die for the country that will no longer exist and for the culture which will long be forgotten, I am asking for your help.”

For people on small island states like Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, science isn’t an intellectual exercise. It has become the language and metrics for their precarious existence: rising salinity and temperatures, changes in precipitation, coral reef damage, inundation and shifting landforms or atolls.

Such phenomena are not a matter of conjecture for our neighbours in Oceania, as well as other vulnerable nations. They don’t get to debate whether climate change is “natural”. Its impacts will be anything but.

For instance, the disruption to agricultural cycles (which span untold generations), will affect food security, with flow-on effects on health, education and work. Studies indicate that a permanent change in weather patterns will shift food-growing zones, along with populations (cited here, here and here). This poses geopolitical questions as well as risks to living standards.

There is something vulgar about undermining science under the guise of being scientific.

Those most exposed to these effects, and who contributed least to human-induced climate change, tend to be poorly equipped to endure it. In India last May, a record-breaking heatwave incinerated crops in more than 13 states, forcing farmers off their land and into cities, some committing suicide. July marked the 10th consecutive month that set a new global (monthly) high-temperature record. This year is likely to be the warmest since records began in 1880.

In this light, there is something vulgar about undermining science under the guise of being scientific. By taking up political resources that could be better spent on climate change mitigation and adaptation, sceptics and deniers are uselessly seeking vindication at the expense of vulnerable people, including future generations.

The solutions that would mediate the impacts – things like submersion-resilient rice – will come from scientific study. Science isn’t just for explaining phenomena, which is where our discourse has so far been sequestered. It is also the basis for the technological and policy innovations that will secure the well-being and dignity of human beings in an altered global climate. In other words, it is well past time to change the terms of the discourse.