Water is rising

By Bryan Walker 31/01/2012

A friend from Los Angeles mentioned when visiting us a few days ago that he had recently seen a striking performance at UCLA by dancers from the Pacific islands of Tuvalu, Tokelau and Kiribati. Climate change figured strongly in the concert, which was part of a project called Water is Rising. Intrigued, I tracked down the project website and to my delight discovered a video of the live performance at UCLA (presented above). I say delight advisedly because I was unable to tear myself away from the 90-minute performance once I’d begun to watch it, captivated by its dance and song and moved by the simple human appeal that accompanied it. The performers were bringing their unique cultural art to American audiences, but they were also haunted by the deep threat to their cultures of the rising sea levels and they had a clear message to go with their performance.

It’s a message which I think we in the developed world need to hear over and over again. I’ve therefore transcribed some of the introductory words of the leaders of the three groups. They were not carefully crafted, the speakers felt for their words, and the English syntax was not always perfect, but the plea was all the more telling for that. The Tuvalu leader, gesturing towards the performers:

These are the human face of climate change. We are the most vulnerable people to climate change and we are here with a simple message to you all — for you to give us a hand, for your minds to feel with us, your hearts to be with us. We are here to represent our countries…we [Tuvalu] are small, we are only 24 square kilometres land mass.  No mountains for us to hide ourselves when it comes to sea level rise…we are only three to four metres high. Please think of us, and enjoy yourselves.

The Kiribati leader:

We from the island of Kiribati would like you to take a deep look at climate change. We…are now experiencing the effects of climate change. So we are now here to send you a message, to big developed countries. If they could minimize the use of greenhouse gases or if they could go for renewable energy – if they can do that we could live in our island, if they could do that we would have a chance

The Tokelau leader expressed his thanks for the great opportunity:

…to show to the people of America and the world the face of the people affected by water is rising   To show the world that when we travel we are one nation, we are the Pacific. May God bless us all. Give us your heart while you enjoy.

After the opening items from each group the Tuvalu leader spoke once more:

These are the cultures and the traditions that we are going to lose when you and I don’t do anything about it.   These are the cultures and the traditions that connected to us… Please — these are the grassroots coming along the way from Tuvalu, from Tokelau and from Kiribati to negotiate with you about climate change… If we do not do something about it it will kill the life of the people of the small island countries in the Pacific. So please be with us and work with us to make us free from climate change and sea level rise.

And the Tokelau leader had one more say:

Where I come from is a very very tiny atoll. If we see a problem we like to make a solution. When the world sees the problem that is climate change the developed world come out with Kyoto protocol, emissions targets, and all of this. You know I tell you a story. In Tokelau we contributed almost nothing to the emissions rate but in Tokelau in our national strategic plan for 2011 to 2013 Tokelau is going to become the first nation in the Pacific to depend on renewable energy only. That is our message for you to help us.  These are the warriors — our land might be small but we have the biggest heart to fight our cause and I present to you the warriors that represent all the people of Tokelau. They’re going to do the war dance.  Enjoy.

A transcription can’t convey the cadence, the significant pauses, the sheer earnestness of delivery. To get that you’ll need to watch at least part of the performance, which I certainly recommend doing. Unsophisticated statements like these don’t carry the weight of scientific analysis or carefully assembled data. But what they do carry is what is most important for human beings — a communication of the extreme severity of the disruptions climate change threatens for human community. The people of these small island nations know that sea level rise may be the end of their societies and they may become displaced persons.  They don’t take comfort from the foolish assertions of deniers. They don’t put on a brave face. The Tuvalu spokesman said in an earlier panel discussion that the words climate change bring tears to his eyes. Although they proudly present their cultural art to American audiences they nevertheless know that they are supplicants seeking changes in the behaviour of rich countries, changes that they are unlikely to see.

These performers represent cultures fifteen hundred years in the making. As project director Judy Mitoma described them in the panel discussion:

Here we are talking with and being with people who have cultivated a way of life in a very difficult circumstance…and the courage, the collective ethos…the sharing within the community are things that virtually are hard to find on this planet. In fact you might argue this is the one place where the culture of sharing, the culture of collective unity is still very alive because of their way of life. This makes the climate change discussion even more important than ever because it’s as though we have people who have treasured knowledge of how to live together in peace, who if they have to leave their island will be dispersed across the world and will no doubt lose their own culture in the process.

The panel discussion was prefaced by items from the dance groups and Professor Alex Hall, a climate scientist on the panel, concluded his explanation of the factors bearing upon sea level rise with this statement, which puts a finger on the importance of hearing from those who already see what climate change portends.

I guess finally, I was just really struck as I was watching these dancers by how irrelevant the science seems and I was thinking about what I would say up here and I was thinking what could I say that would be more powerful and eloquent than what we just saw…science is obviously a very powerful tool and very necessary, but for climate change what we really need, what the bottleneck is, is putting a human face on it, understanding it from a human perspective. That’s what people ultimately respond to…I don’t think people really are listening to the scientists and I don’t think we are the ones that have the ability to carry the message forward. So I really applaud this effort today.