Yet some atolls are already showing the negative impact of climate change, with increasing temperatures and rising sea levels posing a real risk to the South Pacific nation. Phillipa Webb talks to Cook Islanders on the front line of tackling climate change and explores the meaning behind “1.5 to survive…”
Teariki, an old papa, shuffles around his tiny house, tracing his fingers against the rough walls of the hallway, feeling his way to the bathroom.
It is past midnight and everything is black, as is the rest of the tiny island of Pukapuka in the northern Cook Islands.
“Aue,” he sighs.
Teariki is well acquainted with darkness, though he clutches to the idea that one day he may be able to flick a switch to light his path for these midnight excursions.
His wife Vaine is lying awake in bed, listening to that “bloody racket” Teariki is making. She’s thinking about the taro patches again. The waves are moving through the plantations and salty water is seeping into the soil. There are so many patches on the island where taro just won’t grow anymore.
“Aue,” she sighs.
Bringing light to Pukapuka
“Even though we’re on the front line of climate change, the Cook Islands is taking huge steps to try and bring our emissions down, and the renewable energy project is a very good example,” says Ana Tiraa, the government’s Climate Change director. She’s sitting in a café on the Cook Islands’ largest and most populated island Rarotonga, 1150 kilometres away from Pukapuka.
“I hope we can be a role model to other countries.”
A proud Cook Islander, Tiraa has dedicated her career to seeing the Cook Islands stand as an example of how a country can successfully lower carbon emissions.
And change is beginning to show.
The government has reached the halfway point in its bid to supply 100 per cent of the country’s electricity demand through renewable energy, reducing diesel use by over 230,000 litres a year.
Eight solar-diesel hybrid power systems were installed on the Northern Group islands of Penrhyn, Manihiki, Nassau, Palmerston and Teariki’s Pukapuka this year.
New Zealand donated $20 million to the project, and the government’s renewable energy engineer, Ngateina Rani, said the panels bring secure 24/7 electricity supplies to island communities.
“The Pukapukan community will feel the greatest impact: they have electricity and their own freezers in their homes.”
Before the renewable energy lifeline, all freezers were kept at the government compound, as this was the only place where electricity was supplied to the island, through a communal diesel generator.
And although the Cook Islands’ pollution footprint is minimal on the global stage, Tiraa believes it is crucial for the country to stand up as a tiny nation with renewable ideas.
“To me, islands are like laboratories,” she says with a knowing grin.
“You can do lots of experiments with islands, you know (Charles) Darwin and others, they really appreciated islands, because that’s exactly what they thought of them as – laboratories.”
The success of the renewable energy project could pave the way for larger countries to reduce their carbon footprint, says Tiraa.
Yet despite the shining solar example of the north, she warns warmer temperatures are having an increasing impact on the livelihoods of Cook Islanders.
The taro is drowning
The country’s low-lying atolls, which sit only five metres above sea level, are going to suffer the most from the impacts of climate change, says Tiraa.
“Food crops have been compromised... we’re seeing more fruiting seasons with mangoes and while that’s good, the quality is not so good.”
A team from the government division of Climate Change Cook Islands surveyed selected islands early last year and found links between warmer temperatures and changes in biodiversity.
Due to rising sea levels, government climate change advisor Teina Rongo found saltwater inundation on taro plantations in Pukapuka.
“Large areas of the taro plantations could not be planted because of saltwater inundation.”
Two years ago, Rongo also found extensive yellow-band disease on common coral on the fore reef of Manuae, an uninhabited atoll in the southern Cook Islands.
Coral disease is usually linked to human activities, but because Manuae is uninhabited, a potential culprit for the disease is a warmer ocean.
Although there is limited research on the links between climate change and depopulation, Tiraa believes there could be a connection.
The Cook Islands’ population has steadily declined over the past 40 years, largely because of economic factors.
At June this year the country’s population was estimated at 12,900, while 60,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand.
“Climate change could make it harder for people to access their resources and means that they will have to spend more money if they want to make their agriculture more productive.”
1.5 to survive?
“I call it 1.5 to survive,” says Tiraa.
The climate change crusader is referring to the argued need to limit the global average temperature rise to below 1.5C.
The Small Island State Leaders’ meeting in Port Moresby last month urged world leaders at the upcoming 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) to deliver a legally-binding agreement to limit any global average temperature increase to below 1.5C.
At the Pacific Islands Forum declaration on climate change action later in the week, however, island nations compromised with Australia and New Zealand.
“But what is really evident is that we all want a legally binding agreement at COP 21 – we don’t want to see another Copenhagen, let’s put it that way,” says Tiraa.
In November Prime Minister Henry Puna will lead a team from the Cook Islands to Paris to attend COP 21, putting the small island nation at the same table as some of the world’s largest polluters.
And while Teariki can now light his midnight path, Vaine will be hoping that one day there will be some way to stop her taro from drowning.