Marshall Islands climate envoy says loss and damage is washing away Pacific culture. “When that land disappears, the cultural knowledge also disappears” as our culture is deeply tied to land

Loss and Damage. It’s a term that has no agreed definition under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change yet, but it’s one that many Pacific Islanders are familiar with.

Better felt as climate change impacts or harms that happen to us, regardless of what we do to adapt to them, or stop them – such as sea level rise and even loss of our cultural resources and heritage.

Loss is irreversible and permanent in nature, and damage is recoverable or reparable harm. Then we have the economic loss and damage which are those we can put financial value to, and the non-economic loss and damage which has an intangible value, such as our culture.

This further falls into the slow-onset events which happen slowly over a long period of years or are intense events that happen repetitively. The sudden onset events which are those extreme weather events that have major impacts with very little warning. Both cause economic and non-economic loss and damage.

“We’re already experiencing losses on our islands at the very basic level with shorelines disappearing, with livelihoods being impacted by increasing temperatures in our ocean and in our air and also with our disappearing islets,” said Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, the Climate Change Envoy of the Marshall Islands.

“I think as a coral atoll nation that is only two metres above sea level, we experience loss and damage on a very visceral level.  We fear we are seeing the entire disappearance of our islands.”

For the Marshall Islands, the two key priorities are the slow onset events, as well as non-economic losses.  While loss and damage impact our land physically, it also has impacts for our cultural heritage as Pacific Islands people.

“The Marshall Islands prioritises our culture and the preservation of our culture which is deeply tied to land so when that land disappears, the cultural knowledge that is tied to that land also disappears.  In the Pacific we all value our culture, we have the opportunity to capatilise on the loss and damage fund to help support the preservation and revitalisation of our cultures,” said Jetnil-Kijiner.

The twenty-seventh Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC resulted in an agreement to establish a funding mechanism to compensate vulnerable nations for loss and damage from climate-induced disasters.

Consultation and negotiations are now underway to help build the structure around this fund.

“For some reason, we are not being heard about the intangible loss and damage, and the importance of cultural heritage for us and the ways in which that is linked to our land.  I think there is a lot of opportunity for us to really engage deeply and work with our indigenous allies because if anyone understands the connection to land and culture and identity it is our indigenous brothers and sisters across the world.”

The Marshall Islands had an islet called Calalen filled with vegetation in 1976.  Fast forward to today, sea level rise has rendered the islet barren.

While we are living testimony of Pacific stories such as this, science tells us we have a rough road ahead.  Unless our world remains committed to ambitious mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions to stay below 1.5oC and avoid further irreversible and existential losses and damages, future projected losses and damages in the near term as well as unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards will present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.

Sea level rise will put people living in coastal cities and settlements at greater flood risk and low-lying coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves, will be submerged and lost.  The number of people at risk from climate change and the associated loss of biodiversity will progressively increase.  Reducing GHG emissions to limit global warming to 1.5oC would substantially reduce climate-related losses, but they cannot be eliminated completely.

All of which puts our Pacific Islands people and cultures at risk.

“If the UNFCCC stands for its values and it says that it’s a part of its values is the protection of indigenous rights and culture then they need to stand by that mandate and Pacific Island countries like ours,” said Jetnil-Kijiner.

“We should be able to push them to meet those standards because it’s a basic human right, she said.

This story was written by Christine Tuioti, originally published at SPREP on 18 July 2023 and reposted via PACNEWS.

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