“Raise awareness, gather allies, and unify your voice.”
President Barack Obama pointed me in that direction when I asked him a question about the military presence in the Pacific islands. Our brief exchange occurred in 2019—I stood among an audience of global leaders, he responded from the stage—at the convening of the Obama Leaders: Asia Pacific cohort in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
For the past two years, I have been moving in that direction, taking his advice to heart, and it has brought me to Glasgow, Scotland for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26.
Raise awareness. I was born and raised in a small village on an island called Saipan, next to the Marianas Trench. For over 500 years, my home, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and my culture, have adapted to the impacts of colonialism and militarization. But not many are aware of that—even I did not fully understand how deeply ingrained these issues were to our community until my first year in public office.
My beautiful island faced the wrath of two tropical super typhoons fueled by the fossil fuel emissions warming our atmosphere. In 2018, only three years after Typhoon Soudelor, Super Typhoon Yutu flattened my island with sustained winds of over 290 kilometers per hour, the strongest storm to hit United States soil since 1935. Experts say the cyclones will only get stronger, adding to the already receding shorelines and bleached coral reefs. And with the increased frequency of powerful storms, we are left begging for assistance from the same nations driving the impacts of climate change.
We all need to be aware of the apparent truth that climate change is not something that will happen in the future. It is here and it is now. We are already climate refugees. Climate change is here today, and it has been knocking down our doors and washing away our shores for years.
Pacific Islanders contribute very little to the crisis, yet are at the frontlines of dealing with the devastating effects of a warming planet caused by climate colonialism. We have suffered five centuries of imperialism and genocide. This climate colonial violence is still ongoing as rapid and intensive militarization of our homeland takes root, causing destruction and continued theft of our natural resources.
During my first year in office, at the age of 30, I attended a public meeting hosted by the United States Navy. The military plans proposed were destructive and alarming. They described using bombs, mortars, live fire training, taking permits, combat readiness, national security, amphibious assaults, attack helicopters and warplanes, and ship-to-shore naval bombardment. These plans sounded big and scary not only because they would kill native wildlife and destroy native forests, coral reefs, and farmland, but because I knew it could very well become our new reality.
That will not happen as long as we are locally and globally aware of the intersection of militarization, colonialism, and climate change in the Marianas. We have been adapting to our changing environment for centuries and we have knowledge to share.
Gather Allies. While in Glasgow, I aim to share our stories and experiences to connect with allies and learn from one another. As a Climate Justice Weaver with the Micronesian Climate Change Alliance, I have been invited to speak on a number of panels at COP26. I am particularly interested in speaking with representatives from the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, and Guam. Our brothers and sisters from these islands have suffered alongside the CNMI by subjugation for atomic bomb testing, radiation poisoning, marine-life destruction, unsustainable development, and the degradation of our coral reefs and lagoons.
Altogether, my brothers and sisters across the Pacific hold the keys to solve the problem of militarization, climate change, and climate colonialism. We are not passive victims. We hold solutions that are grounded in our millennia of living as kin to the land and ocean.
Many communities in the Pacific are implementing climate-smart agriculture and are revitalizing traditional practices. Examples of this are expanding mangrove forests, planting drought-tolerant species and utilizing the benefits of nature, such as using seaweed as soil and planting vegetation to reduce flooding and erosion along coastlines. There are some communities combining these traditional practices with new scientific advancements such as the development of heat and salt-tolerant and community-led GIS mapping of breadfruit trees vulnerable to climate impacts in the Marshall Islands. Communities are revitalizing traditional water wells in Pohnpei, establishing new protected areas, and improving the management of existing protected areas in Chuuk and Yap in the FSM. climate-smart development plans that incorporate ecosystem-based adaptation are being implemented all over the Republic of Palau.
We have to unite in this fight.
Unify Your Voice.
I will also be meeting with peace and climate justice leaders from across the world who are demanding that military exemptions to the climate accords end. War causes warming, the world’s war industry is the single largest consumer of fossil fuels and single largest producer of pollutants. Holding these entities accountable to take climate action is vital in global effort to keep to 1.5-degree Celsius warming threshold. Pacific people’s survival depends on this target and we all need unify and raise our voices so world leaders can make bold commitments ensuring the safety of our futures.
The journey to COP26 in Scotland, United Kingdom is no easy feat. Crossing the Pacific Ocean, the entire North American continent, and the Atlantic Ocean, brings me a long way from our warm island home, and COVID-19 adds just one more layer of complexity on this international journey. The long days of traveling and cold temperatures do not deter me from ensuring our islands and our futures are strongly advocated for.
Even with all these obstacles before me, I am on a mission and I have the people of the Mariana Islands with me in spirit.
References: Mcleod et al. (2019). Lessons From the Pacific Islands—Adapting to Climate Change by Supporting Social and Ecological Resilience. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00289/full.
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Rep. Sheila Babauta (D-Saipan) is a member of the 22nd Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands House of Representatives and chairwoman of the Natural Resources Committee.