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Environment

Pacific islands youth skeptical of COP21

While small Pacific islands are in danger of vanishing due to rising sea levels, their younger inhabitants are skeptical that the climate summit in Paris will change that, a DW reporter discovered at a Bangkok forum.

In a building filled with hundreds of young people from all over the world, Tim Baice still clearly stands out. With a pink flower tucked behind his ear, his tall head overlooks the crowd. He is more calm and observing than many of his fellow attendees at the One Young World Forum in Bangkok.

"It is heartbreaking to think that at a future One Young World summit there will be no reps from Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu or Samoa," the young Samoan says. "Because [then] we have no countries."

Baice came together with young leaders from all around the world in Bangkok - at the youth-focused conference. Topics range across the humanitarian and business spectrum.

But one issue is looming over them all: Climate change. Only two weeks ahead of the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) meeting on climate protection in Paris, Baice and other attendees are urging their countries' leaders to make Paris a success.

Global warming at the front door

Thailand One Young World Summit in Bangkok 2015 - Tim Baice

Tim Baice from Samoa believes that even if the Paris climate summit is a success, Pacific islands won't be saved

During the conference, Baice meets up with Annette and Paulo, fellow attendees from Vanuatu and Timor-Leste. They are also somber about their countries' issues, as

climate change isn't an abstract concept for them anymore.

The effects of global warming are taking place right at their doorsteps. Smaller islands such as Kiribati are not only in danger of being swallowed by the rising sea level - changed weather conditions mean more frequent and intense storms - just like cyclone Pam earlier this year.

Young doctor Annette Garae worked the night when cyclone Pam hit her home island Vanuatu. "They called us in for an emergency caesarean," recalls Garae of her shift that night. At that same moment, she remembers, the cyclone was about to make landfall.

"You could see the wind, and we had to evacuate patients into the new building - it was really scary." The mother and child survived surgery under the extreme conditions. But in many cases, the true challenges await after the storm has passed.

'Climate change will make them sick'

"It destroyed most of our resources and buildings," Garae told DW. Aside from their struggle to get good healthcare - Garae worries that as climate change sets in, people in Vanuatu will be more exposed to infectious and other diseases. "These will start to rise as [impacts of] climate change increases," the doctor is convinced.

Paulo Dos Santos Borges of the organization Science of Life Schools has to battle these health issues also in the educational field. His organization provides boarding schools and training programs for young people in Timor-Leste. But rising sea levels have been compromising the sanitation of buildings in his project. "The water has become fecal," he says.

Thailand One Young World Summit in Bangkok 2015 - Annette Garae

Young doctor Annette Garae from Vanuatu worked the night cyclone Pam hit her island

Former East Timor, first a Portuguese colony and then an Indonesian province, only gained independence in 2002. With half of its 1.2 million people living in poverty, education and health have been among the greatest challenges for the young country. Climate change has hindered progress on these issues.

Small Pacific islands need to unite

Tim Baice, Annette Garae and Paulo Dos Santos Borges stick together, with their fellow attendees from the small Pacific islands. In the evenings, they all meet up to have dinner together in a park in Bangkok.

"One of the highlights of this conference is that we kind of come together naturally and put aside those kinds of national boundaries," says Baice.

"But how do we translate that into going home and affecting some changes and the thinking of governments?" To Baice, the small islands aren't organized enough to find a united voice.

Medical care in Timor-Leste

Climate Change is impeding healthcare in poverty-stricken Timor-Leste

"We are doing different things on different islands and spaces, it is so uncoordinated," he told DW. This makes it hard for the young people to fight a common cause. Instead each small group battles its own issues.

Working as a communications advisor for the Samoa Youth council, Baice has reached out to the young attendees of bigger nations in their region such as Australia and New Zealand in hope they would unite for their cause.

"They couldn't give two bleeps about what the islands are going through," he says with clear disappointment. "They don't see it for themselves." This indifference for the fate of the small islands, he finds, is confirmed at the governmental level.

Hope for Paris?

Baice points out how Tuvalu prime minister and other Polynesian leaders have been calling on Australia to place a moratorium on building coal mines and to stop selling coal in the region.

Thailand One Young World Summit in Bangkok 2015 - Paulo Dos Santos Borges

Humanitarian worker Paulo Dos Santos Borges laments how many people don't know Timor-Leste exists

But at the Pacific Island Forum in early September, former Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbott rejected such measures, also when directly asked by the Pacific island nations.

"I thought that was such a cold and heartless response, and basically focused on Australia's need to make money," Baice says bitterly.

The behaviour of Australia's former prime minister makes Baice skeptical about the COP21 summit that begins at the end of November in Paris. "I have very little faith that this meeting will achieve anything," says Tim Baice. If the neighbour countries don't understand the issues of the small islands, how can the rest of the world? "Money matters, the economics and capitalism won’t change." Not for a few islands in the Pacific ocean anyway.

Garae, the young doctor, has more hope. "I am grateful that I am here along with my other Pacific island nations, and I think just by being here, it is allowing us to put our voice to be heard," Garae says.

Garae adds that she realized at the conference in Bangkok that this isn't just a fight for the Pacific islands: "There are other small islands from Asia and around the world that are going through the same thing."

Dos Santos Borges agrees. Although not everybody is aware about a small island like Timor-Leste, they might be more aware about how climate change is an issue for the small islands - and beyond.

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