Why this Time cover is a disgrace to climate realities of Pacific Islanders

There are 11,000 people in Tuvalu who could have been featured on the cover of the Time to demonstrate the vulnerabilities of Pacific people to climate change. Time decided to put a European man on the cover instead, standing in the waters of the Tuvalu coastline – ignoring the true subjects of the story.

By Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson

SAMOA OBSERVER: Eleven thousand – that’s approximately how many people are living in Tuvalu right now. That is exactly how many people are facing direct threat to their homes, livelihoods and identities as a result of rising sea levels, storm surges, cyclones and other climate change events hitting Tuvalu on a monthly basis. Hundreds have already left, migrated to safer and secure shores.Two point three million – that’s how many people live in the Pacific islands including us in Samoa – according to the World Bank. Those numbers alone indicate a whole lot of subjects who can accurately reflect to you the risk of climate change on our lives – yet, yet, Time magazine chose to feature a European man to demonstrate what we stand to lose.

This month Time Magazine featured UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres standing knee-deep on the coast of Tuvalu – during his visit, in an article entitled “Our Sinking Planet” – subtitled “Rising seas, fleeing residents, disappearing villages.” Don’t take me wrong, Guterres is an admirable Leader with a strong sense of conviction for the issues we face as islands – but, he is not the face of Pacific climate change.

What a sad state of affairs – that in order to truly demonstrate and exhibit the impact of climate change on the atoll nations of the Pacific, on islands scattered across the Pacific ocean – that we have to resort to European lenses to capture the loss on the front cover of a major publication.

If you refer to previous climate change related covers by Time magazine – you will see pictures of polar bears, western activists, penguins, cities and Politicians – yet this issue which is set in Tuvalu was not enough to put an actual islander whose life is affected in real-time by climate change on the cover of the magazine.

Now some might argue that it is just a magazine and shouldn’t matter – that politics and actions matter more. But this is deeper than just a paper cover of a magazine – this is about fair coverage and accurate depiction of an issue. Featuring the head of the UN standing in a suit on an island with residents who actually are legitimately facing seawater inundation several times a year and have to literally carry their pigs so they don’t drown and hold up furniture to save it from flooding – is not only offensive to those going through the problems, but a disservice to the practice of journalism. The article itself is well done and covers the issue very well across the Pacific – however, the fact that it was not headlined by a Pacific islander is a disappointing nod to the need for a westernized story lead.

Having conducted one of the first studies on climate change coverage by global media of Pacific issues –  back in 2009 at the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford – the Time cover is a disheartening and discouraging metric of environmental journalism practice worldwide. My study found that at the time there was minimal coverage of climate change impacts in the Pacific islands – and when there was coverage, it was about an issue in a developed country with the Pacific as a small example or the Pacific as part of Asia.

The Time cover is a testament that our issues, the fate of Pacific islanders still continue to be marginalized and sensationalized by western media – in their pursuit of a sexy headline, while disregarding realities, facts and actual subjects of the climate story.

Part of the problem is that we are minority, the islands are just not a significant enough geography or people to warrant proper coverage and due justice by these global media outlets such as Time. We are but a mere side thought when the true impacts of climate change are covered. As such, we are either sinking, fleeing or disappearing – but it’s more than that. There are economic losses, struggling governance systems resulting from the added pressures of extreme weather events, there are capacity issues due to the complexity of adaptation measures implemented locally and there are future existential issues that haven’t even been addressed in a manner that is realistic for islanders – especially those in atoll nations like Tuvalu.

Hon. Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu along with all other Pacific leaders including our own Prime Minister have consistently reiterated the vulnerabilities of Pacific people over the years – it is founded on real fears and true experiences on an annual basis. As skirt wearing men – perhaps the image of a man in a skirt (lavalava/ie faitaga) and flip flops standing in the ocean is not a strong enough picture for our colleagues at the Time. But if true journalism principles are applied – it would not matter if Sopoaga was standing in a grass skirt – his people are the true victims, and that is the story, not the thought of Gueterres handcrafted leather boots and socks in the water – but rather the reality of a people whose land is slowly submerging beneath them as they themselves find ways to rise above it.

*This piece appeared in the Samoa Observer on 25th June 2019.

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