Kiribati President Anote Tong says his country’s decision earlier this year to establish the world’s largest marine protected area in the Phoenix Islands was its gift to humanity.
Meanwhile the waters are taking away from Kiribati, Tong says, as rising sea levels caused by climate change claim more of the island nation’s land and threaten the way of life of Kiribati’s citizens. I-Kiribati, as the citizens of the country call themselves, and residents of other low-lying island nations may now have to turn to other countries for assistance.
The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected a sea level increase of 0.4 meters within this century. Kiribati’s elevation is no more than 2 meters above sea level. Its fresh water comes from aquifers. Saltwater intrusion into the aquifers is expected to make the islands uninhabitable before rising water overtakes settlements, Tong said.
“We will lose our homes. The islands will lose their ability to sustain life,” said Tong at a Sept. 22 press event in Boston. “We are already experiencing a lot of problems.” His September trip to the United States included stops at Harvard University, the New England Aquarium and the United Nations. During his travels, Tong spoke about both the Phoenix Islands Protected Area
and about the strategic plan for Kiribati as it faces an uncertain future.
He is working with other countries to essentially begin a gradual evacuation of his nation of 110,360 people. Tong has struck deals with Australia and New Zealand to train a small number of I-Kiribati to perform jobs those countries have trouble filling. He is also trying to find other options for Kiribati’s citizens as he pursues his goal of relocating 1,000 I-Kiribati a year for the next 20 years.
“We want to move our people with as much dignity as possible,” Tong told an audience at Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. “For us it is not a matter of economics, it is a matter of survival."
“Already we are suffering things that we never experienced before,” Tong said, citing prolonged drought, destruction of the coast and coral bleaching. When people ask Tong, who holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, how he can be sure these problems are due to climate change, he admits he’s not certain. “What I know is that it is happening, and it did not happen previously.”
“It’s really very impressive to hear you talk about the tough decisions that your people are facing,” said Harvard’s Jim McCarthy, professor of biological oceanography, following Tong’s address at Harvard.
Tong has been sounding the alarm about the ill effects of global warming for years, and he says it has been difficult to get people to listen, in part because the international community has been distracted by security and terrorism concerns. He addressed the subject in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25.
“It is indeed pleasing to note that climate change is finally being given due recognition as a security issue,” Tong said.
“We welcome this development, as we believe it is time the United Nations focus its attention on the human dimension of climate change,” he said. “At the same time I am deeply concerned that there has never been a discussion of the fate of humans whose very existence is seriously undermined by climate change.”