Oscar-Nominated Short Documentary Highlights Climate Change Refugees, Part 2

This is the second part in a two part series on climate change refugees and the film Sun Come Up. The film documents the Carteret Islanders search for new land. It serves a powerful reminder that climate change is not statistics. It’s living people, some of whom have some very hard decisions ahead of them.

Sun Come Up's other great strength is that it brings attention to the science of sea level rise. For too long, sea level rise due to climate change has been wrapped in the language of islands being swallowed by the ocean. The president of the Maldives signed a bill underwater last year to illustrate this. And stories have appeared in The Economist and other publications have painted a similar picture.

It’s dramatic but is it accurate? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that low-lying atolls could disappear. But it would take a rise in oceans of at least 1-2 meters to cause that. Even the gloomiest projections put that type of rise well over a century into the future.

In Sun Come Up, when asked if the island will disappear or if people will die of hunger first by a a radio host, one of the Cartereters says hunger will get them first. This is one of the more immediate threats from sea level rise. Climate change is likely to cause higher tides and storm surges, salt water intruding into freshwater aquifers, and destruction of coral reef ecosystems are more at risk from a smaller change in sea level or ocean temperature. Those high tides can in turn kill crops like those kept by the Carteret Islanders.

Similar stories can also be found in other island nations. In the atoll of Tuvalu, king tides reached within a meter of the Parliament building this past week. Illustrating these vulnerabilities might make a stronger case for climate change action.

Gary Braasch, a Portland-based photographer who explores the human dimensions of climate change, did just that. He documented this year’s King Tides in Tuvalu.

His experience also points to differing views on how islanders want to deal with climate change. While the people in Sun Come Up see migration as the best path forward, not all islanders see eye-to-eye on the issue.

In an email Braasch writes: “There is no indication from the many people I met on Tuvalu this time that they are considering migration or staged relocation. This may become necessary, some acknowledge, but the nation officially and most leaders are focused on the survival of Tuvalu.”

Instead, leaders on Tuvalu and other low-lying island nations like the Marshall Islands and Maldives are using their situation to leverage government actions to mitigate the causes of climate change rather press for funds to adapt.

Ultimately, it may take pressure from both people wanting to preserve those home and others looking to make a new one to get governments and people in developed countries to act. The question is will they listen? The efforts of small island states along with films like Sun Come Up the work of people like Braasch certainly make the case that they should.

Photo credit: Elyse Patten