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Pacific Island youth comes to Copenhagen, seeking climate justice

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Solomon Islands youth activist Christina Ora
Christina Ora photo by Emily Gertz / Oxfam America

Emily Gertz is a freelance journalist, editor, and blogger covering the environment, technology, science, and sustainability. She reported on the Copenhagen climate talks on behalf of Oxfam America.

Christina Ora may have been among the youngest present at the fifth Council of Youth (COY) meeting in Copenhagen this past weekend. But the 17-year-old’s poise when she speaks about climate change would leave many an older person envious.

“I’ve noticed that for big industrial countries, climate change is out there, but the leaders are concentrating on issues within the country,” says the Solomon Islands native, who has come to the Copenhagen climate talks as a volunteer with an Australian-Pacific Island Nation youth coalition called Project Survival Pacific. “What I want the U.S. people to do is to tell the government and the politicians, ‘Don’t put climate change aside. Put it as your first priority.'”

In the Solomon Islands, communities are already being forced to relocate because of changes in the climate. Residents of the low-lying Reef Islands are being forced to move inland to higher ground, she says, because their croplands are being inundated by seawater, their homes battered by fiercer storms and tides, and their supply of fresh water vanishing.

Moving is a complicated matter, Christina says, because it puts communities into conflict for scarce and valued resources. “Back home, land is your identity,” she explains. “You are tied to that land, and your ancestors have been on that land for a long time.”

As she tells it, the Solomon Islands government is mediating a relocation plan between the Reef Island communities and an inland tribe called the Malaita. The negotiations have been difficult, says Christina, to the point that Reef Island elders have told the government to arrange for only their young people — “those people that have a future” — to relocate. She says that the elders are willing to stay behind and go down with the islands that have been their home for generations.

Here in Copenhagen, Christina is one of hundreds of youth activists hoping that the United States will come through with an aggressive plan to cut its greenhouse gas pollution. She also wants the US and other wealthy developed nations to commit to funding the adaptations that developing nations like hers are — and will — be forced to make to the changing climate.

Historically, the industrialized nations are responsible for putting most of the human-propelled heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

“The Solomon Islands is a small, developing state,” says Christina. “The Solomon Islands is one of the least emitters. The US is one of the top three…so when you come to the table” in Copenhagen, she says of the US, “bring something good.

“Our survival is not negotiable.”

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