Media Inaccurately Dramatizes Climate Refugees of Carteret Islands

by Kelly Watanabe

Media reports on the sinking Carteret Islands—Pacific atolls of Papa New Guinea—portrayed the islanders as the first direct victims of climate change; rising sea levels forced the population to migrate to Bougainville Island. John Connell (2016) puts the situation into a perspective unfiltered by the misleading media. Due to recent emphasis on climate change, the public media quickly blamed global temperature increase and rising sea levels for the lack of sustainability on the Carteret Islands (CI). Current media reports sourced their information from previous inaccurate media reports, not the actual story; the media ignored the inherent scientific evidence showing that other geographic factors were more influential. Dangerous tidal waves (tsunamis) are caused by natural recurring tectonic plate movement and violent El Niño wind patterns, not climate change. According to Connell, the brackish water and flooding created by the tides are a more pressing problem than the rising sea levels. Inadequate fresh water supply depletes crops and fish, making the land inhabitable. CI households began migrating long before evidence of climate change emerged. In reality, economic opportunity, not climate change, incentivized islanders to migrate.

Why does media ignore the true reason for CI migration? Connell maintains that an apocalyptic island makes a more attractive story. Since climate change is linked to emissions from industrialized nations, the media evokes sympathy from the public by portraying CI islanders as victims of a problem they did not create. The media reports give CI islanders an excuse for the problems which actually lie in CI government. Even with the geographical and climate threats, most CI islanders do not migrate due to unattractiveness of developing a new identity, inadequate government funds, and political conflicts with Bougainville. CI islanders themselves were hoping that the media reports would help islanders gain support for migration. However, less than ten CI households have migrated to Bougainville.

Connell, J., 2016. Last days in the Carteret Islands? Climate change, livelihoods and migration on coral atolls. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 57, 3-15.

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