IN Tonga, where Zane Sikulu grew up, he says no one jokes about rising sea levels.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s overheard quip last year about Papua New Guinea – “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door” – confirmed for many Pacific islanders Canberra’s level of concern about the impact of climate change on them.
“There’s a lot of anger and a lot of frustration in the islands,” Mr Sikulu said.
“Australia has always been seen as a big brother in this region, and it’s disappointing to feel like the leadership isn’t serious about what’s happening.”
Mr Sikulu, 30, will join an anti-fossil fuel flotilla in Newcastle on Sunday, one of “more than 500” people the conservationist coalition “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” says have registered for the protest.
Among an armada of kayaks blockading coal ships on Newcastle harbour will be five wooden canoes from the Pacific nations of Tonga, Vanuatu, Tokelau, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.
A resort wish-list for many Novocastrians, the islands and their neighbours were identified at last December’s Paris climate talks as the “ground zero” of climate change.
Mr Sikulu, a campaigner with conservation group 350.org whose is from low-lying Haʻapai in Tonga, said his inspiration to oppose the use of fossil fuels came from a tree.
“My family comes from a tiny island, and there was a mango tree about 15 metres in from the sea,” he said.
“Over the years we watched the sea creep in slowly and poison the land. Now that tree is gone.”
Many in the islands put the changing climate down to the will of God, Mr Sikulu said, but that is changing.
Fiji and Tonga are “still reeling” from 2014’s tropical Cyclone Ian, and the notion of a cyclone season has warped with more frequent and more severe storms.
“There always is a cyclone season,” Mr Sikulu said.
“But you know, the cyclones have just become more frequent and more destructive, and that’s something our elders are all seeing and telling us.”
At last year’s UN Climate Change Summit in Paris, the most comprehensive study to date on Pacific island migration found a human exodus is happening in the wake of increasingly frequent floods, cyclones and droughts.
Researchers said 15 per cent of the inhabitants of Tuvalu had left in the past decade, leaving its population at about 10,800.
A similar number of people had left Nauru over the same period, and most had sought refuge in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.
Sunday’s protest shapes as the biggest anti-coal demonstration ever held off the Port of Newcastle.