Oscar-Nominated Short Documentary Highlights Climate Change Refugees, Part 1

Climate change refugees have been a hot topic this month in the international development world. Three reports put out document the likelihood of climate refugees in the future. Reports from large agencies rarely capture the finer details of what happens on the ground. Luckily, an Oscar-nominated documentary, Sun Come Up, provides an intimate look at a climate migration that has already happened.

The film looks at the efforts of a group of Carteret Islanders to relocate to higher land. Living off Papua New Guinea, they decide to search for land on a larger island after strong King Tides, the colloquial name for the highest tides of the year in the South Pacific, wipe out their crops. Though they have been around as long as the sun and the moon, as the ocean rises, the tides are inundating areas previously protected.

<iframe title="YouTube video player" width="640" height="390" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/3broZl8sl_g" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>The islanders see planned relocation as the best way to insure their survival. The film follows a group of them as they search for land on a larger island. That means also having to find locals who will accept them, which is no easy task in a region that was part of a civil war from 1990-96.

The film also highlights the mental struggles of moving a culture built around a specific place. There is a rhythm and a story built around the island people have inhabited for generations. Of course this culture isn’t static. Changes over time from the addition of motor boats to propane stoves have altered culture in some ways. But there are rituals, a certain way of being that come with living somewhere.

Leaving that place behind can cause a dramatic shift. One of the Carteret Islanders interviewed in the film says at one point: “If we come here , we will not be the Carterets people anymore.” Another says of life after the move, “most of our culture will have to live in memory.”

These statements show the immense weight leaving home imposes. They also bring to mind sentiments heard during the forced migrations of indigenous people in the US, Canada, and Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries and the accounts of slave brought to the New World. In other words, they shed light on the neocolonialism of climate change.

Yet the islanders forge ahead. They eventually find land, complete with a hike that leads to a view of the Carteret Islands. It’s a distant connection, but one that still holds power to animate memories for some of the islanders.

Through the film, governments play a non-existent role in helping the people relocate. That’s in part because there’s still a debate about what role government should play in planned relocation efforts due to climate change. The three reports released this month on climate refugees all come to different conclusions about how serious the problem will be on the macro level and also about what governments can do.

But here it is, in plain view. It might be on a smaller scale, but people are moving because they feel that’s their best bet for survival. A small group of islanders living in one of the least developed countries in the world managed to execute their plan to find new land more insulated from future climate shocks. The juxtaposition with the petty actions of Republicans in the US House and the inability of developed world governments to commit to real emissions reductions is appalling.

Will the film win an Oscar? We’ll see. Win or not, you can still help the islanders relocate. The film’s website has section called HouseRaiser, which allows you to organize a viewing party of the film or simply make a donation that will help the Carteret Islanders build homes on their new land. As the site says: “We must not let these communities bear the brunt of this problem alone.” Governments should take note, too.

This is Part 1 in a two part series. Special thanks to Cynthia Thomson.

Photo credit: Explorer Traveler