Despite having grown up in Nadi and Suva, two coastal cities in the island country of Fiji in the South Pacific, 26-year-old Komal Kumar never thought much of climate change when she was young. “I knew that it was happening, but I wasn’t really too familiar with it when I was a kid back in school,” she admits.
Compared to many of her compatriots, Kumar enjoyed a relatively comfortable upbringing. “I admit I was rather privileged and had everything that I needed,” she explains, “from going to one of the best primary and secondary schools to getting a quality university education.”
But as her country started to bear the increasing burden of a warming climate, she realized she could no longer turn a blind eye to the issue. “When I was young, I can remember that the cyclones were never this intense, and heavy rain never caused as much flooding and damage as it does now to many parts of our country,” she recalls.
It was when she was a student at the University of the South Pacific that Kumar started to get involved in climate activism. “The more I read about climate change, the more I learned how greatly it’s affecting the Pacific and the world,” she says. “My interest just started growing, and I thought perhaps there was something I could do from my end, given that there were not many young people in Fiji who were interested in climate change at the time.”
By the time her country was chosen to hold the presidency for the 2017 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 23) in Bonn, Germany, she had become part of a 15-member youth delegation that traveled to attend the event and represent their country and the Pacific, which are some of the world’s most vulnerable places to climate change.
“Fiji has some of the most beautiful islands you could ever visit, with white sandy beaches, tropical forests, waterfalls and mountains. But with the effects of climate change, we might not have them for long: coastal areas are being eroded, coral reefs are slowly dying, and cyclones and flooding are causing more damage than ever before.”
Today, Kumar works with the Alliance for Future Generations Fiji, a growing youth network organizing events and projects with local communities to improve landscapes and education on climate across the country. The group focuses primarily on encouraging young Fijians to become more active in addressing environmental issues.
“There’s a lot of momentum here, and young people are often supporting and approaching us to participate in mangrove planting and workshops,” says Kumar. “We also have growing interest from local communities. Earlier this year, we visited a coastal settlement in the Suva area near the sea walls, helped and engaged them in a beach cleanup, and tried to help them understand the challenges that we’re facing.”
Kumar believes awareness of climate change in Fiji has grown since the country was chosen to preside over COP 23. Along with fellow youth activists, she worked relentlessly to promote the conference among Fijians, visiting schools and communities and connecting with other youth groups to explain their country’s role in the negotiations and learning about the processes involved.
“People know about climate change and how it’s affecting us,” she stresses. “The awareness is there, because you see these issues in the newspapers, radio and TV news on a daily basis. But when it becomes too scientific, it gets a bit difficult for them to understand.”
Kumar says tailoring messages to their audience is key. “With young children, we try and use a language that’s more understandable to them – because of climate change, we’re getting a lot of cyclones and a lot of flooding here. In very local communities, there are many people who don’t understand English, so you have to go and talk to them in their local language and try to simplify it for them as much as possible.”
Another effective way to engage the public is to frame the issue through the lens of climate justice, she says. Many Fijians have already experienced the effects of climate change first-hand, with three coastal communities having been forced to relocate inland due to rising sea levels. Kumar highlights the importance of viewing climate change as an ethical issue, given that developing countries and low-lying island states are most vulnerable to its effects despite contributing the least to global carbon emissions.
“In other parts of the world, the effects of climate change are not felt as much, but for communities here in the Global South and in the Pacific, it’s a growing concern. These communities have the least access to the resources and technologies that they need in order to adapt.”
When she attended COP 23, Fiji’s government released a report revealing that it would need around USD 4.5 billion in investment to adapt to the impacts of climate change – an amount it could not possibly afford on its own.
For Kumar, climate justice means ensuring not only that these equity considerations are taken into account but also that communities at risk be protected from rising sea levels and more frequent storms. This includes decent jobs, adequate health care, and ensuring access to sufficient food and nutrition, which is particularly challenging for coastal communities that have moved inland.
“If a community has been relocated from a coastal area, it means that their whole lifestyle has changed. If they’re shifted inland, they can’t just rely on fishing anymore, so they have to adapt to other modes of earning money.”
To help these transitions, Kumar emphasizes the need to adopt bottom-up approaches to ensure that the needs of local people are met. She gives the example of one community that was recently provided with solar panels to generate their own power. “The government’s job was just to install the plant. Now the community is looking after it, so they’re becoming more resilient, and they now have the resources that they need to sustain themselves.”
But Kumar is keen to point out that citizens in other countries can also play a part in helping Pacific Islanders cope with the effects of climate change – whether through reducing their own carbon emissions or through raising funds to help small communities adapt to climate change. And, crucially, “the most important thing is holding your own governments responsible for taking climate action and reducing carbon emissions.”
Young people, she is convinced, can and will play a decisive role in addressing climate change, but only if they are involved before it’s too late. “We as young people are always expected to be the leaders of tomorrow. But what will we take charge of if the world we live in will probably end in the years to come?” she poses.
“It’s about time that world leaders recognize the potential of young people and let them work side by side with them in tackling some of these challenges.”