Editorial: The canary in the Pacific mine

Saturday August 10, 2019 Written by Published in Opinion

The idea of placing a canary in a mine to detect carbon monoxide was first proposed by oxygen specialist John Scott Haldane, about 1913.


The canary would be a “sentinel species”: an animal more sensitive to the colourless, odourless carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases than humans.

If the animal became ill or died, that would give miners a warning to evacuate.

Until as late as 1986, coal miners brought canaries into their mines as early-warning signals.

“They are so ingrained in the culture, miners report whistling to the birds and coaxing them as they worked, treating them as pets,” reported the BBC, when they were finally replaced with electronic detectors.

A canary in the mine. That is how we’ve described Tuvalu today, as leaders from around the Pacific fly into the small archipelago of nine low-lying atolls.

It’s an apt comparison when Tuvalu sinks below the seas, that’s the sign it’s nearly time for us all to evacuate to higher ground.

Today, Pukapuka’s Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky tells how her daughter’s umbilical cord is buried under a coconut tree on the Cook Islands’ northern atoll. She is working to tell the stories of the atoll, she says, before the seas rise and it’s too late.

And our reporter Anneka Brown arrived in Tuvalu overnight to report on the Pacific Islands Forum and its pursuit of solutions.

Human environmental degradation combined with climate change is creating a crisis that Pacific leaders have long warning about; too often, though, their calls are falling on deaf ears.

Just last month, it emerged that US President Donald Trump’s officials had been deleting mentions of “climate change” from U.S. Geological Survey press releases – just the latest retrograde step from an Administration that itself seems lost down a dark, old coal mine.

It’s time Trump stopped tweeting, and listened to the canary instead.

-          Jonathan Milne

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