By Julian Mocine-McQueen
I am a full blown, full time climate activist. For 7 years, I’ve spent a majority of my waking hours focusing on how we can address this issue and create jobs and opportunities in the process. In my role as Director of Education and Outreach at Green For All, I’ve recruited partners, supported events, organized trainings, tours, workshops and actions with some of the most ambitious, committed and innovative community leaders in the United States. It is work that I love, and I bring a deep passion to it.
Recently though, I’ve felt somewhat distant from the issue of climate change. I’m not sure why, but I think it may in part be due to the fact that I’ve spent so much time focused on it, that it’s just sort of become part of the background. That all changed last week. Climate change, as an issue, as a reality, as the single most critical issue we’re all facing became real again.
Last month, I started a sabbatical from Green For All to pursue a project I co-founded on storytelling and public speaking called the Million Person Project. I set off on a trip to Fiji to work with a dozen climate activists from islands across the South and North Pacific. For two days, my partner Heather and I worked with leaders from Fiji, Tonga, Tokelau, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. These leaders are part of the 350.org network, and we were working to help them uncover and use their personal stories about their connection to climate change to better communicate and lead in their communities. I will never forget the stories we heard, they were vivid, they were honest, they were scary and they were all very clear on one thing…climate change is here and it is an existential threat to their communities.
When you are on the global front line of climate change, the timeline for unimaginable catastrophe is shorter. The storms are already getting more deadly and devastating. Days before our arrival, Cyclone Pam swept through Vanuatu with a force not seen before and wiped out 90% of development in their major city. The president was quoted as saying, “We’ll have to start over.” That same storm (along with an unusually high tide) created a king tide in Kiribati that swept further into the small villages than ever before, inundating wells that had never been breached by the sea. The water is already rising and these low-lying island nations like Kiribati are facing the fact that their entire country might disappear. As their president noted, “There will be a time when the waters will not recede.”
These are shocking truths, ones I’ve heard before, but what became real to me is that this fact means that Kiribati organizer Toani Benson’s neighbors have no access to drinking water apart from the aid coming in. A bigger storm or a larger king tide could mean they lose their homes. They lose not just their physical home, but their homeland. The people of Kiribati have been there for over a thousand years. They have a long and storied history, they have legends and teachings and a worldview that is indivisible from the atolls that make up the country. With climate change, all of that, all of the stories, all of the landmarks, all of the triumphs and tragedies that make up Kiribati and define what it means to be a Kiribati man or woman…disappear from the face of the earth. The map of the world will have to be changed. I’ve never before understood this.
I’ve never sat and thought as our friend Arianne from Papua New Guinea has, about how it must feel to visit your grandfathers grave site and know that there is a very real possibility that you will never be able to take your child there because it is slowly eroding into the sea. I’ve never before thought about how it must feel to see the ocean that has nurtured and supported your people for 10 or 20 or 100 generations begin to turn against you. How must it feel to be in that kind of fight, and on top of it all, to know that it’s because members of your human family who live far away and will never visit refuse to change how they light, power, heat and build our world. I’ve been sitting with these thoughts this past month and it makes my throat tight and it brings tears to my eyes. The front line of climate change is a real place and the people here are fighting for their life and their way of life as we speak.
The organizers we worked with call themselves the “Climate Warriors.” I feel so blessed to have come here and met these young warriors and learned their stories and visited some of their homes, because I now know in my heart what I’ve always known intellectually, that our fights are completely intertwined and utterly connected. These climate warriors are in the vanguard and they are fighting everyday to bring the stories of their struggle to the world so that we can push harder and demand more action on climate change. They are moving with urgency and with intention and they are not resting. They are doing their part and more than their part, and now it’s up to us, the rest of the world, to do ours.
I wish that everyone in the world could come and break bread and share stories with people in this region. I believe that if this happened, the offensive and indefensible climate change denial of too many government and industry “leaders” would become culturally abhorrent. It can’t happen. But what we can do is try to put ourselves in their shoes. We can think about our history and heritage, where our families rest, where our stories originate. We can redouble our efforts and move with an urgency that reflects the fact that our heritage, history and future is on the line…right now. Because it is. Ultimately, we are all on the front lines of climate change. The timeline might be less immediate for many of us, but the shifts will occur. Our family’s land will disappear, or dry out, or flood. Our homes will blow down and our wells will dry upThe Pacific Climate warriors have a motto, “We’re not drowning, we’re fighting.” I, for the first time had the chance to stand with these warriors and I will forever move with their fight, our fight in my heart and mind. Because the Pacific Ocean that they wake up to is the same that I wake up to thousands of miles away in San Francisco. The waters are the same and the threat is the same, and I now know more completely than ever before that their fight is my fight, and their story is mine and that I can fight from where I stand and stand with them. Thank you climate warriors for leading the charge. We are with you and we are fighting!