Atoll Habitability Study Echoes UUSC Partner Project

New research commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense examined climate change effects on the Marshall Islands’ Roi-Namur island, providing a rare glimpse into wave-driven flood modelling on atolls. Although the research looks at just one of the more than 1,250 islands in the Marshall Islands atoll archipelago, it further validates the threat of climate-forced displacement atoll communities are facing. Sea levels rising at a high rate and increased risks of wave-driven flooding will leave many island homes on atolls uninhabitable by mid-century, according to the research.


New climate change research, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense, echoes the challenges that many Pacific Islanders are facing. Two islands in the Solomon Islands, pictured, have completely vanished and six more are experiencing coastal erosion.

The study appears to be largely motivated by a desire to assess the security of U.S. military infrastructure in the region, though it echoes the challenges that many Pacific Islanders and communities in Alaska are already experiencing to their lives as a result of climate change impacts. In the Pacific, many villages, such as the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea and Vunidogoloa in Fiji have been forced to relocate due to flooding and ongoing erosion caused by rising sea levels. In Alaska Native Villages, such as Shishmaref and Kivalina, communities are losing their homes and lands due to melting permafrost and ongoing erosion. These impacts cause cultural, traditional and livelihood losses, which can also force communities to move.

UUSC partners with communities and organizations around the globe to support marginalized populations are at risk of forced displacement caused by slow-onset climate impacts. Pictured: Partners, community members and UUSC staff on the Cateret Islands of Papua New Guinea.

The study also provides evidence of the ongoing absence of local voices in atoll climate research, which is the focus of a UUSC partner project with the Marshall Islands Conservation Society (MICS). The UUSC-MICS partnership is allowing the Maloelap Atoll community to gather and analyze flood risk information to help build residents’ local capacity to communicate their climate story and make community development and natural resource conservation decisions that prolong the habitability of their atoll home. Core to this project is the community’s ownership of both the work and the data gathered, per the Marshall Islands national conservation area management framework known locally as Reimaanlok or ‘looking to the future.’ The UUSC-MICS project is led by Mark Stege, MICS Chief Research Advisor and Maloelap Atoll Councilman, who shared these thoughts on the new research conducted in his home country:

“If flood risk models will be produced for low-lying island communities, the main question we are asking is, ‘what is the level of local participation and ownership in generating and using these models, and thereupon the adaptation decisions including those decisions surrounding climate-forced displacement?’ The field data needed in atoll flood modelling should be based on observations not only of present and future flooding events but also of past trends (i.e. traditional ecological knowledge). Moreover, who more practical to monitor and assess an atoll community’s exposure to water security risk and flood risk – as they increase exponentially in the coming decades – than the atoll communities themselves? The considerations I am trying to elevate among atoll inhabitants include our own perceptions of individual safety and well-being as both become even more threatened, and strengthening our atoll community’s capacity to arrive at its own determination of ‘how much flood risk is too much?,’ ‘what amount of groundwater and rainwater is adequate?’ and ‘what constitutes potable water?.’ Climate research like that done on Roi-Namur certainly helps us do that.”

Although frontline communities often have the best and most appropriate solutions for climate-change challenges, they often receive the smallest share of funding and are sidelined by state and international decision makers. UUSC and our partners continue to advocate for funders to incorporate human rights-based approaches to amplify the voices, advocacy, and solutions of frontline communities facing challenges associated with climate change.

Nicaragua: A difficult country with resourceful people

Carol and David Holstein in Playa Gigante in southern Nicaragua.

We joined 13 other UUs for a College of Social Justice trip to Nicaragua.  As you might recall, the UU College of Social Justice is a collaboration of the UUA and the UU Service Committee providing experiential learning opportunities in social justice that inspire and help us live our faith. It is a privilege to get to know UUs from across the country, bond with UUSC leadership and meet individuals making a difference in their communities.

Our children cannot believe that we go on a vacation where we need to study plus do homework.  The course work covers quite a range but boils down to: 1) Appreciating Nicaragua’s history, including a long period of deplorable actions by the US and 2) increasing awareness of cultural differences from heritage as well as from economic circumstances.  Nicaragua is the second poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere with its 6 million people having a per capita GDP of only $2,200. It has again moved toward totalitarianism from what started as a populist President.  Yes, Daniel Ortega has been President since 2007 and his younger wife has become VP insuring that the family will remain in power.

Strikingly, Nicaragua is a beautiful country.  It has volcanoes, huge lakes, oceans, beaches, rainforests, mountains and kind, friendly people. It also feels like a step back in time with dinners costing $10, $1 beers and $50 hotel rooms.

Our program focused on two areas: 1) Women’s Rights and 2) Environmental Rights.

We spent considerable time with FEM (Fundacion Entre Mujeres), Foundation Among Women in Northern more rural Nicaragua.  This group is supported by UUSC, reflecting a mission to help marginalized people as well as recognizing women’s role in creating enduring groups, strengthening families and creating wealth.  Nicaragua’s machismo culture, men owning the land, an acceptance of violence against women and women’s being relegated to chores and childbearing produces a clear division where men hold all the power.  Basically, FEM exists to empower women.  It’s education about their rights. It is understanding that violence against women is not OK.  Having children is a choice. It’s the sharing of the household income and wealth.  FEM is servicing a group of women who are largely peasants (campesinas) with little formal education.  FEM’s reach has grown over time.  It trains women in bio-intensive gardening, maximizing the productivity of small subsistence plots.  It helps women get their goods to market via a stall to sell produce.  It created a co-op to sell coffee, honey and hibiscus.  Their fair-traded coffee is marketed by a Wisconsin company under the brand “Just Coffee.” The women are extremely passionate about how FEM makes a difference in their lives.  The most moving “speech” was from a woman who explained how she no longer buys onions from the market but rather sells them.  But, the magical part was that by owning productive land, she gave her daughters a future which is better than hers and provides hope.

Climate change is having a big impact.  Rain falling in the dry season; erosion on both coasts; the possibility of a canal through Lake Nicaragua all have catastrophic implications to traditional ways of life.  Being environmentally sensitive is a “luxury” of wealthy countries.  That said, we visited the Guardianes de Yaoska in Rancho Grande.  This group of peasant farmers is fighting a Canadian mining company B2 Gold.  The Yaoska is a river which is the lifeblood of the community.  Thus far, they have been successful at stopping the company from setting up an open pit gold mine.  They are protecting their rural farming life against a government that encourages mining with little/no safeguards.  But, their success has not come without sacrifice.  They had to forego a year of school for their children as the company and government were using schools to spread the pro-mining message.  Violence against protestors was always a real threat.  The most stirring speech was from a man who held up the produce he grows – Malanga – and stated that this is real gold which you can eat.

It is inspiring when you realize that people with little education, little money and little power still can be successful and make a difference.  Their commitment, dedication and drive to preserve their lifestyle for the Guardians or to improve women’s place for FEM is truly amazing.  It provides some hope as we look at our situation in the US and the intractability of so many issues.

Strength for the Fight Ahead

January 20 marks the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. For human rights advocates, the past 365 days have been marked by daily efforts to resist actions from our nation’s highest office that propagate racism, hate, fear, ignorance, and greed. Right now, we are fighting for a clean Dream Act even as dysfunction in Washington holds up these efforts.

However, reflecting on the past year, and the work of our partners and staff in action, gives us hope—this work tells a story that is much more about courage and perseverance than one of despair.

Our shared vision of a world free from oppression provides fuel in the fight to advance human rights. Working together, with our partners and allies, we have activated strategies that confront unjust power structures and challenge oppressive policies.

Here are just a few moments from the past year that motivate us for the work that lies ahead.

This year, sustained by the passion of our community and supporters, we will continue to focus on strategies for protecting families fleeing violence in Central America, fighting for an end to ethnic cleansing in Burma, and responding to the front lines of climate change and ready to respond to natural disasters.

Celebrating International Migrants Day with a Call to our Philanthropic Allies

In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly designated December 18 as International Migrants Day. This day recognizes that international migration is a growing phenomenon in our world and calls us to reaffirm and uphold the human rights of migrants and refugees.

In early December, UUSC Senior Program Leader for Environmental Justice and Climate Action, Salote Soqo, participated in a stock-taking meeting for the Global Compact for Migration – an international mechanism for advancing a more unified approach to the needs of migrants. “The meeting was extraordinary,” Soqo says, “in the sense that in a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia, there was great convergence amongst delegates around centering the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants.” The meeting sent a strong signal that the Global Compact — and the international community’s collective actions on migration — must be centered on human rights.

David Boseto, of UUSC Partner Ecological Solutions, and boat driver Muku in Wagina, Solomon Islands

This International Migrants Day, celebrate with UUSC as we issue a new resource, Community-Led, Human-Rights Based Solutions to Climate-Forced Displacement: A Guide for Funders. UUSC is calling more funders to engage directly on the issue of climate-forced displacement and to incorporate human rights-based approaches to amplify the voices, advocacy, and solutions of frontline communities.

Climate change is advancing rapidly and placing people’s human rights at risk. According to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council’s Global Report on Internal Displacement: GRID 2017, in 2016, 24.2 million people were newly internally displaced by natural disasters. It is likely that 200 million people will be displaced by climate change by 2050.

“Climate impacts exacerbate existing inequities in society.”

Climate-forced displacement is having severe impacts on human rights. Climate impacts exacerbate existing inequities in society. A majority of disaster-related displacements occur in low- and lower-middle income countries and disproportionately affect small island developing states, according to the Global Report on Internal Displacement. The spectrum we have developed outlines human rights at risk and key concerns for frontline communities, from the tipping point at which communities decide they must consider radical adaptation measures, through migration or resettlement.

→    The right to self-determination must be at the core of relocation planning.

“Frontline communities have the most appropriate solutions to these challenges.”

While frontline communities have the most appropriate solutions to these challenges, these communities receive the smallest share of funding and are sidelined by state and international decision makers. Trends in financing favor climate change mitigation over other approaches. No reliable mechanisms exist for community organizations to access international funds directly. Indigenous communities face additional hurdles accessing funds from national governments — and it is even more difficult for unrecognized tribes.

Our guide offers concrete steps funders can take to advance community-led, human rights-based solutions to climate-forced displacement by:

  • Assessing how climate-forced displacement relates to a current strategy or portfolio
  • Effectively partnering with grassroots communities working on issues along the climate-forced displacement spectrum
  • Advancing a human rights-based approach to climate-forced displacement
  • Acting as a bridge and network builder to amplify the voice and impact of grassroots communities

Paris Agreement: Be a citizen supporter

The United Nation’s climate negotiations are underway here at the Conference of the Parties (“COP23”) in Bonn, Germany. As the global community drafts roadmaps for achieving goals set in the Paris Climate Change Agreement, I’m again inspired by our shared responsibility to advance the rights of those whose livelihoods are being destroyed by the impacts of climate change.  

Sign the “I Am Still In” pledge to tell countries committed to the Paris Agreement that you support climate action.

With Tuesday’s announcement that Syria has decided to sign the Paris agreement, the United States is now the only country in the world not supporting it. This decision affects the air we breathe and the water we drink. It threatens the health and welfare of millions and it harms our ecosystems, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable people on our planet.

Emboldened by the spirit of global collaboration and collective power, I am emailing to ask you to please join UUSC and our partners in letting the world know that we are committed to addressing climate change now.

Tell the countries committed to the Paris Agreement that you’re still in to take climate action: Sign the “I Am Still In” pledge.

From the frontlines of UN climate talks

It’s begun! The world has gathered for critical climate talks and to evaluate the implementation of agreements to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change. UUSC and our partners are on the frontlines of this year’s Conference of the Parties (“COP23”) in Bonn, Germany. We’ll be sharing updates and opportunities to advocate for the rights of marginalized populations who are disproportionality at risk of losing their homes – and entire ways of life – due to our warming planet.

In true Pacific spirit, Fiji opened COP23 with a traditional ceremony, showcasing perhaps one of the most important Pacific traits that is at risk due to climate change. This traditional and cultural loss resonates with indigenous cultures worldwide.

Here are just two of the many startling details heard during one of the conference’s first panels, Disappearing Islands:

  • Two islands in the Solomon Islands have completely vanished and six more are experiencing coastal erosion.
  • The significance of #3. We are currently on a dangerous track to a 3 degree warming, which will result in a 3-meter rise in the Pacific sea level. We only have 3 years to reduce emissions to address pre-2020 emission targets.

UUSC and our partner are working with three communities in the Solomon Islands. One of those villages, Nuatabu, was swept away by a tidal wave in 2012. To this day, people are still living in despair in tents and makeshift shelters and have not received any government assistance. UUSC is helping Nuatabu and other villages with resources and advocacy for national and international action. 

There are many outstanding organizations working to confront these climate change threats, yet few groups focus specifically on the resulting human rights crises: the families forced to evacuate their homes, the villagers whose fresh water wells are rendered useless, the farmers who live in constant fear of losing their communities’ crops. Through our Environmental Justice and Climate Action Program, UUSC and our partners are developing community-led and human-rights based responses to climate forced displacement.

For instance, Chevak Native Village, home to 1,200 Cup’ik villagers in Alaska, is one in a multitude of affected communities where we are working for urgent action. Minimal government assistance has left villagers to cope alone with weather-related changes and erosion caused by increasing temperatures and thawing permafrost. But like other villages in Alaska, this community does not have the resources to deal with the barrage of ongoing climate issues.

I am honored by the opportunity to participate in COP23 and stand alongside our partners in advocating for climate justice. And, I am inviting you to join me in shining a light on how climate change is disproportionately affecting the most marginalized populations, multiplying their risks, widening inequalities and threatening their basic human rights and dignities.

We are providing updates from COP23 on our blog, Facebook and Twitter feeds. Please follow us and help spread the word that the global community has a responsibility to act TODAY to protect the needs of all, not just the most powerful.

One of the atrocities of climate change is that the people who are least responsible for this looming catastrophe will suffer — are already suffering — its worst consequences. They urgently need someone to stand with them. I’m hoping that will be you.