A few years ago, Climate Change economist Dr. Annela Anger-Kraavi responded to an Estonian journalist’s enquiry about climate change, detailing the realities of Pacific people. She was labelled a liar.
It didn’t matter that as a well-known academic and active researcher in climate change, she was an expert on the subject. In her hometown, her scientific response was met with scepticism and criticism.
The backlash created in Anger-Kraavi the realization that in Estonia where oil and coal are important export commodities, the frontline experience of Pacific Islanders, half a world away is akin to a bad fairytale.
That did push the now Cambridge University professor into climate storytelling.
Annela Anger-Kraavi, is adviser on international climate change policy to her government and has been a climate change negotiator at numerous Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP).
As Senior Research Associate at Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Dr Anger-Kraavi believes stories are crucial to raising awareness and in turn spur better commitment from the governments of the global north.
“I’ve been telling those stories that there are these real impacts, that the Pacific and some of its people are losing their homes and lives and also entire islands. The response has been Are you kidding me? Stop talking about that! You’re lying! You’re making up things,” Dr Anger-Kraavi said.
“That was the case in response to one of my interviews to the largest daily newspaper in Estonia. That prompted me to look for someone who could give me an interview.”
That search brought her to the coastal communities of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest Islands where she met communities who constantly face severe cyclones which now happen more frequently.
Accompanied by an Estonian television crew, she hopes her stories will continue to educate the public back home whose current experience with climate change is warmer climates which still for them means nicer holidays in what is usually -25 degrees Celsius winters.
The stories are also her way of staying authentic, current and accurate at the COP process.
Stories have been an important tool for Pacific climate activists who have used various forms of it for years. Foremost in the creative storytelling genre is Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshall Islander poet, performance artist and educator now her country’s climate envoy.
Her transition from activist to government delegate is the path through which many hope the power of storytelling will flow. She believes storytelling is powerful but agrees there’s some more work to be done.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily doing anything wrong. I think there’s a lot of stories and creation and art and work that’s coming out of the Pacific that is engaging on the climate change issue, and highlighting our different experiences really well,” Jetñil-Kijiner said.
“I think, you know, media tends to be really fickle, and it’s western and western media tends to dominate. In those spaces they tend to either victimize or tokenize.”
“It’s not necessarily our fault, that those stories aren’t getting out there to certain spaces. Whenever someone says I didn’t know about this, artwork, or story or writing coming out of the Pacific, I’m like, well, you’re just not paying attention to the right area, because there’s a lot, actually.”
While she doesn’t believe pacific storytelling as a community of work is doing anything wrong, she believes there is space for platforms which are more contextualized for Pacific stories.
Jetñil-Kijiner believes Pacific delegations at COPs must be comparably sized as those from governments of carbon emitting countries who need to hear of the realities of the islands. Journalists and storytellers must be part of those delegations she said.
“We need more journalists. On the one hand, there’s an important part of capturing the experiences of climate change on the ground level and that’s from the journalists who are living on the ground in our islands, that’s super important and super valuable.”
“There also journalists who are in the diaspora, who are capturing the experiences of islanders coming to terms with it, you know, from abroad, and being far away from their islands and sort of feeling kind of helpless and working within the spaces of the diaspora. Then there’s the technical part of cops, with the terminology like the concept of loss and damage, the concept of adaptation, you know, that’s some pretty technical language. If you really want to be able to really report on what’s happening out here, you have to have an understanding of that technical language and this space and being able to translate that to our communities, so that they’re able to understand.”
The climate envoy believes more accurate stories which capture the intimate challenges of climate ravaged communities will help Pacific people “what is happening at this level and why the fight is so incredibly difficult, because right now, there’s a disconnect between our delegations who come out here.”
“Getting more Pacific journalists out here first is really key. Then getting them what much more caught up and engaged on the on the technical language is really valuable too.”
Evan Wasuka is executive producer of the daily radio show, Pacific Beat which is flagship broadcast product the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Now part of a more consolidated ABC Pacific platform, Pacbeat faces a similar issue as Pacific affairs journalists based in the islands.
“I think that’s part of the challenge is understanding all the technical language. So here at ABC, we do the Pacific Beat show, which is every day. We don’t have that much time to prepare and go through and fully immerse ourselves in the understanding the language and the coverage of the story. So definitely the big things we have our eye on is loss and damage and how it’s going so far. We’re also keen to keep an eye on what Australia is doing, what it’s not doing and trying to keep pace with what’s happening over there,” Wasuka said.
“But the covering the top conference is quite difficult in terms of things happen slowly over those two weeks. It’s a difficult and not an easy story to cover over time.”
Jo Chandler, an Australian journalist turned educator at the University of Melbourne has been trying to unravel the challenges of climate storytelling.
“As an outsider journalist who’s been telling climate stories, particularly from Papua New Guinea on and off over the last few years, and then telling science stories, I guess my preoccupation and interest is how to better get out of the way of Pacific storytellers and to support them to be telling the stories without middlemen and women like me,” Chandler said.
She says that when ‘outsiders’ get out of the way of Pacific storytellers, when the stories are told directly, theyre more powerful and shes working to ascertain the kind of work required sustainable broad platforms “voices to be broadcast with all of their intimate power.”
To teach her journalism students, Chandler uses Kathy’s famous “Dear Matafele Peinem” and “Tell them”. Jetñil-Kijiner’s poems which articulate the threats that climate change and corporate power pose to the Marshall Islands have received wide acclaim since she first delivered them at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit.
“It’s a seismic event – in its power in exposing the lived climate reality; in switching the dial on impacted communities from victim to fighter; and confronting the suits with some raw truths. And secondly in exploring with students the challenges, constraints and obligations facing ‘outsider’ reporters telling stories from places that are not their own. Her work, its raw intimacy, confronts the outsider reporter, reminds them of how little they can know of communities they report on, on what’s in their hearts and their capacity and history – which is not necessarily a reason not to do that reporting, but a reminder to do it with humility and great care,” Chandler said.
A creative clever combination of literary prose and powerful climate activism now mostly directed at teaching youth, Jetñil-Kijiner’s poetry goal is a generation of pacific islanders aware of the urgency of the climate impact and are empowered to use storytelling to activate that global awareness.
The climate envoy believes in the importance of concise, accurate and emotive stories to invoke better commitment is crucial at COP27 where a financing mechanism for Loss & Damage is the goal of the Sharm-El-Sheik conference.
“We’re trying to find small ways to get more people engaged on the issue and more people creating new work, and then pushing it out there. If more countries just invested the time in that, I think that that will build up a kind of as an upswell of storytelling even further than where we’re already at,” Jetñil-Kijiner’s said.
“We really need to move forward. We need to pick up the pace, basically, we only have a few more days and there’s been kind of an inertia. We only have a few more days, so we’re hoping that things will start picking up soon.”
Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Evan Wasuka and Jo Chandler were part of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s daily Pacific COP27 Media Briefing on Nov 16, 200.
Lice Movono is a Pacific affairs journalist based in Suva, Fiji producing content from the islands for Australia and New Zealand media. She was engaged as guest editor of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s daily Pacific COP27 Media Briefing.