There’s arguably no people who better understand the threat of climate change than the residents of Tuvalu, a nine-island nation 2,500 miles southwest of the Hawaiian archipelago.

Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, who has headed the country since 2013, told an audience of conservationists Friday in Honolulu about a young girl who lives on one of the outer islands there.

He recounted how during a visit to her preschool she presented him with a necklace and asked him, “What can you do to save me?”

“It was very telling,” Sopoaga said during a six-member panel discussion at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress meeting at the Hawaii Convention Center.

“Islands have been lost — totally washed away,” he said, referring to some of Tuvalu’s smaller land masses submerged since he was a child.

Prime Minister Elene Sopoaga IUCN climate change. 2 sept 2016
Tuvalu Prime Minister Elene Sopoaga shared a story about a preschool girl who asked how he planned to save his islands from disappearing due to climate change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That girl, Sopoaga said, is looking to government leaders for answers, wanting to know what they plan to do in the face of a global environmental problem that Tuvalu and other small island nations did not create and are ill-equipped to face.

The prime minister said his country’s roughly 10,000 residents do not want to become refugees. He noted that while small, remote places may be at the forefront of the crisis, the rest of the planet will be impacted too.

Sopoaga said next month at the United Nations General Assembly meeting he is going to introduce a resolution that deals with people displaced by climate change.

“If we save Tuvalu, we save the world,” he said.

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman, who moderated the 90-minute talk, said Tuvalu is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, and despite all the science and evidence of the need to take action, the world has waited.

“It’s just amazing our ability to ignore the state of our biosphere,” he said.

NY TImes Tom Friedman IUCN climate change. 2 sept 2016
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman, who moderated the panel, said it’s time for Americans to move beyond their “all-you-can-eat” attitude. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Friedman said that while walking to dinner Thursday in Waikiki, he noticed an “all you can eat” restaurant, which he said has essentially been the United States’ motto for far too long.

“We’re getting to the point where we cannot do that anymore,” he said.

The panelists also included Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Tom Butler, president and CEO of the International Council on Mining and Metals, Martha Rojas-Urrego, secretary general of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of Conservation International.

They underscored the need to act on the climate pact that 190 countries agreed to last December in Paris, which involves limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and achieving climate neutrality in the second half of the century.

Martha Rojas Urrego IUCN climate change panel. 2 sept 2016
Martha Rojas-Urrego, secretary general of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, talked about how crucial wetlands are to storing carbon. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And they highlighted the powerful — and cost-effective — role of nature-based solutions, such as protecting wetlands that store carbon.

“It’s right within our grasp,” Seligmann said. “It actually doesn’t take that much money. It takes wisdom.”

While Tuvalu signed the Paris climate agreement, Sopoaga said he took issue with calls for small island nations to reduce their carbon footprint along with big countries that emit the most greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is an immoral expectation from those who are already injured,” he said.

In April, Robert Glasser, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, commended Tuvalu and 14 other small island states for ratifying the Paris agreement.

“These 15 countries are among those who contribute least to climate change but are suffering the most,” he said. “Their speedy ratification of the Paris Agreement should be an incentive to others to follow suit quickly and to do the maximum possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we are to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.”

Peter Seligmann IUCN speaker panel. 2 sept 2016
Peter Seligmann, head of Conservation International, said it takes wisdom more than money to protect land that’s key to fighting climate change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Seligmann said 24 percent of the planet is controlled by indigenous people. He said they are key to fighting climate change, and he pointed to the example of Conservation International’s work over the past few decades with an Amazon tribe in Brazil that helped simultaneously preserve an indigenous culture while protecting about 29 million acres of rainforest.

“The most important thing we can do is support the efforts of local communities to address these efforts,” he said.

Farther north in the Pacific, Micronesia and small island states are facing challenges similar to that of Tuvalu.

The president of Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, told Civil Beat last year that he fears climate change will make life there “like living in a war zone.” And Charles Paul, the Marshall Islands’ ambassador in Washington, D.C., called it the “single greatest threat to our existence.”

Climate change is a major theme at the IUCN conference, which continues through Sept. 10 at the Hawaii Convention Center.

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