When the Waters Rise: ‘Sun Come Up’

A few years ago, I sat on a flight from Australia to the U.S. next to a nun (I’m convinced nuns on planes are good luck, so my fear of flying was temporarily sedated). The nun told me she lived on the Kiribati Islands where she helped environmental refugees find homes after their islands were flooded by rising sea levels. She was on her way with a delegation to that year’s United Nations Climate Change Summit in Cancun, Mexico. It was the first time I’d heard the term ‘environmental refugee.’

Likewise, before I saw the award-winning documentary film Sun Come Up on HBO, I’d never heard of the Carteret Islands, an atoll belonging to Papua New Guinea and located in the South Pacific.

But quickly this film illuminates the tragedy climate change levels on unknown numbers of island societies around the world. As the nun taught me, for people who live in small island societies, rising sea levels and water temperatures are dramatically affecting their ways of life. Melting Arctic ice may ultimately cause the displacement of 634 million people who live near coasts (for scientific proof, read this).

For natives of the Carterets, the message of global warming is simple: leave your homeland or starve to death.

Sun Come Up follows the quest of a group of young Carteret natives who must travel to the closest island of Bougainville to search for new land as environmental refugees. Bougainville was the site of two civil wars in the past half century, a much more violent and unstable island than the Carterets. It is also a mountainous island; if the Carteret natives are to move here, they will likely have to give up their ocean-based way of life, forever forgetting the sound of the waves their culture has known for so long.

What struck me most about this film was not only the widespread environmental consequences of global warming (Carteret’s reefs are dying and the islands are consistently flooded with sea water making agriculture impossible), but the non-politicized use of the word ‘climate change’ by people of both the Carterets and Bougainville.

For these people, ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are not dirty words slung about in political grandstanding—they are the dire realities of life and death.

(If you subscribe to HBO, you can watch the entire film on HBO Go. For more on the scientifically-proven consequences of global warming, read the EPA website here. To do something about climate change and help the Carteret islanders, click here.)

Sun Come Up (trailer) from Sun Come Up on Vimeo.

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About Kaitlin Solimine

Kaitlin Solimine was raised in New Hampshire but has considered China a second home for the past two decades. She is the author of the award-winning forthcoming novel Empire of Glass and co-founder of Hippo Reads, a media start-up connecting academic insights with real world issues. She lives in Singapore.
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