Indigenous people of some of the most affected countries marred by climate change shared real-life horror stories of how global warming affects some of the most far-flung areas on the planet as they spoke to Al Arabiya English on the sidelines of COP28.
Native communities and activists from around the globe have gathered at COP28 to call on leaders to stick to commitments to protect ancestral lands and to call for greater loss and damage funding as they say their heritage and unique traditions are under threat from climate change.
One indigenous person who knows all too well the first-hand effects of climate change is John Ruben, a 30-year-old from Vanuatu, an archipelago located in the South Pacific Ocean.
The married father-of-one says his one-year-old baby girl has already experienced four tropical cyclones in the first 12 months of her life as extreme weather events rocked the tiny island country in 2023.
“She is terrified (when they happen),” he told Al Arabiya English, adding that the latest bout of cyclones had devasted their home. “Everything has been destroyed,” he said.
Ruben, who works in research, science and development, says climate change-linked events have become devastatingly frequent over the past decade.
“These tropical cyclones are some of the events that are becoming severe at the moment in the past 10-20 years,” he said. “We have experienced three severe tropical cyclones in just a span of eight months this year, so it’s something that confirms that our climate conditions now are totally different to what we have had in the past.”
A compounding issue, he said, is when cyclones happen so close in a short period, leaving islanders no chance to rebuild and recover.
A host of calamities, including from rising sea levels to, cyclones, and droughts, to coral erosions, made worse by the climate crisis, are threatening the entire existence of island nations like Vanuatu, which is hoping some financial relief may be brought by the sorely-needed Loss and Damages (L&D) fund to help world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries which have been operationalized this year in a landmark announcement on the first day of the COP28, with the host UAE pledging $100 million.
“Cyclones, rising sea-levels… the impacts are huge, just huge. So, it makes recovery very difficult compared to in the past,” said Ruben. “The impacts of extreme events impact communities differently.”
“But since most of our population lives in rural areas, that means that most of our people have limited access to essential services. And when it comes to extreme events and sea level rise and all these climate related disasters strike, I would say that generally most of our populations are impacted. Very, very badly.”
Ruben said he would like to see COP28 pave the way for not only financial relief but aid to help scientists and experts in the small island nation build a dedicated research center into how climate change is specifically impacting Vanuatu.
“If we can do our own research, it will really help to put real issues into our scientific reports to inform our decision-makers,” he explained. “Financial aid could also go into building equipped evacuation centers for when cyclones hit,” he said.
For now, Ruben is focused on a world that is safe for his baby daughter, whom he was separated from during a cyclone earlier this year. Ruben lost contact with her for eight hours and said: “I didn’t know if she was even alive.”
“It is getting worse,” he said, on climate change-induced disasters. “All my family is in Vanuatu. I can’t leave there. It is my home. And my story is a common story.”
And unlike Ruben, who has faced numerous natural disasters threatening his home and the lives of his loved ones, 23-year-old youth activist Johnny K. Silk, Jr., from the Marshall Islands, hopes to bring change before it is too late.
Speaking to Al Arabiya English, Silk said: “I am worried about losing my home and I feel like it’s unfair that I should be worried and that I should be trying to come up with solutions and, you know, making an adaptation plan. I feel like it’s unfair.”
Smallest polluters at highest risk
The sparsely populated, low-lying islands, despite being among the smaller polluters in the world, are among the first places at risk of being claimed by the ocean as sea levels rise owing to global warming. This is in addition to facing natural disasters like droughts, tropical storms, and cyclones.
They are now faced with the decision to reclaim the seabed to reinforce their shores or risk being displaced in about 70 years, when some projections see the country going underwater.
“I feel like it’s really important for us to be here to share our message and our stories and to make sure that whatever is put in the text of the negotiation rooms is also equitable and it works for us as well,” Silk said.
“What we want to do is encourage bigger emitters to phase out of fossil fuels. And we also want to display our resilience by launching the national adaptation plan and making sure that people know that we’re not just sitting back.”
“Throughout the Marshall Islands, a common message that we hear, especially from the youth, is that we’re staying, even if it means we swim in our islands, in our homes.”
Slow progress over data
The scarcity of data and difficulty in translating it into working information that can be used to make informed decisions to support indigenous communities and women is one of the biggest challenges faced by COP28 host nation UAE’s UN Climate Change High-Level Champion Razan al-Mubarak.
Speaking to Al Arabiya English at the site of the UN climate conference on Tuesday, al-Mubarak said that the data that is being collected on the ground is not being communicated, “not because of lack of data, but a lack of confidence in the data.”
“There needs to be much more engagement between the various databases. And we do now have the technology to do so,” she told Al Arabiya English in response to a query during a media briefing.
Al-Mubarak is also the president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the founder of various national environmental and conservation agencies like the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency.
Climate change amplifies gender inequalities
The Emirati environment and wildlife veteran reiterated how the impact of climate change is not gender neutral and how it amplifies existing gender inequalities, “posing a serious threat to women’s livelihoods, health and wellbeing.”
The topic of financing the response to climate change, a bedrock of the UAE’s COP28’s agenda, was highlighted as a necessity. “For action, we need finance. And finance needs to flow to those who are on the front line.”
Al Arabiya English spoke to various indigenous climate activists who voiced concern over the allocated funds not reaching the designated individuals and organizations.
When Al Arabiya English questioned the UAE official about the discrepancy in allocated funds, al-Mubarak said: “First of all, we have to acknowledge and recognize that it’s not reaching them and… work together on understanding what the bottlenecks are. And thirdly, ensure that indigenous peoples are on the table to design the financial vehicles to ensure that the financial flows get to them.”
On Monday, the COP28 Presidency announced a new commitment titled ‘COP28 Gender-Responsive Just Transitions & Climate Action Partnership’ that will work towards actioning on data, finance, and equal opportunities, with implementation to be reviewed during COP31.
As of Tuesday, 68 countries out of over 196 have signed up to the commitment.
“In 24 hours, if you are able to get more than 60 countries, I think the mentality is there because of this growing recognition and acknowledgment that you cannot reach a just energy transition while excluding women, excluding those that are on the front line,” al-Mubarak told Al Arabiya English.
Al-Mubarak also said she expects all the parties to get on board and sign the commitment. “We’re shooting for the stars.”