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Jennifer Redfearn

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Sun Come Up: The Carteret Islands' Environmental Refugees

Posted: 03/18/11 12:00 AM ET

The red carpet, glamorous gowns and flashing cameras at the Academy Awards couldn't seem more distant from the wooden huts, taro cultivation and subsistence fishing of the Carteret Islands, a strand of low-lying islands in the South Pacific. But for a brief moment at the awards last month, the fate of approximately 2500 Carteret Islanders alighted upon public consciousness when my film, Sun Come Up, was announced as a nominee for Best Documentary Short Subject.

The situation in the Carteret Islands, which are off the coast of Papua New Guinea, is one that all should pay attention to as the world warms and we begin feeling the devastating effects of climate change. Although their own carbon footprint is virtually nonexistent, the islanders bear the heartbreaking distinction of being some of the world's first environmental refugees, facing imminent displacement as the sea encroaches upon their home.

As the tides have risen around their atoll of six islands and storm surges have increased, their wells have been ruined by saltwater, their gardens have been destroyed, and their land has eroded. The islanders are working to evacuate their homeland and relocate to Bougainville, a mountainous island 50 miles away.

The Carteret islanders are not alone. The United Nations has estimated that climate change will displace up to 250 million people by 2050. Other Pacific islands are also facing extinction and preparing for evacuations. Low-lying, heavily populated areas including Bangladesh are likely to be encroached upon by rising seas, and land-locked areas like Sudan face droughts triggered by climate change.

But hearing about the projected fate of hundreds of millions might seem abstract to many people. Sun Come Up, which I made with co-producer and director of photography, Tim Metzger, tells the firsthand story of what it's like for people to lose their homes to climate change. The islanders are seen living their traditional lives as fisherman, in close-knit families who sing, dance, and joke together. They tour communities on Bougainville, scouting out potential new homes and trying to build relationships with their prospective neighbors. We hear the optimism of the younger islanders, who are hopeful about building something new, as well as the laments of the elders, who bemoan the loss of their culture.

People have the opportunity to take direct action by helping us raise $20,000 to support their relocation effort. So far, the Carteret islanders have secured land in two locations on Bougainville, and in 2009, two families moved to their new communities. Eight more families plan to move soon, but they need support to build homes. Host a house party or educational screening of Sun Come Up in your community today, and donate the price of a movie ticket to build new homes for the islanders. We can together declare that those bearing the brunt of climate change don't have to bear it alone.

Watch the trailer for Sun Come Up below. And if you're interested in being part of our House Raiser campaign to help relocate the Carteret islanders, go here.