Kiribati: The World’s First Former Country Due to Climate Change?

By Matt Orr.

No one wants to imagine a world in which, as sea levels continue to rise, low-lying island nations and the people that inhabit those islands will succumb to the oceans that surround them. If we regard the scientists and politicians at the center of this reality seriously, this is an image we won’t have to imagine, but will see by midpoint of this century. In a sinister overlap, the potential success of the greatest international plan to curb the effects of climate change in history, the Paris Agreement signed in December 2015 at COP21, which sets out to achieve net-zero emissions from energy around 2050, could coincide with climate change claiming its first nation as victim around the same time. A classic “too little, too late” with tragic and irreversible consequences.

Kiribati sits 1,250 miles (2,000 km) south of Hawaii, and as most island nations go, is not confined to one land mass, but to a network of small islands, 33 in Kiribati’s case strewn around the South Pacific with vast areas of water in-between. These islands are home to over 100,000 people, whose collective conversation about climate change has evolved quickly over the approximate 25-year period that Kiribati has recognized and reacted to the existential threat. First there was acceptance, then education, then adaptation and mitigation, and finally the current full-on contingency planning and emigration – a survival plan, either on a Kiribati island or elsewhere.

Caught between preservation, which seems more and more unlikely, and evacuation, which has always been a worst case scenario, Kiribati can’t afford to spend limited resources on two opposing plans. Kiribati’s leaders some time ago made a calculation that bolstering islands against the effect of rising sea levels would be wasted in the seemingly inevitable event that most homes and infrastructure will have to be abandoned in the next 30 years or so, and with that the long and sad saga of relocation planning began.

Kiribati’s former President (2003-2016) and globetrotting climate change crusader, Anote Tong, took the stance that while his islands may not be savable, his people were. Over the years, on his many stops around the world championing the cause of Kiribati and other vulnerable island nations like it, he gradually went from talking about climate change in terms of CO2 and melting glaciers, to a “matter of survival” as he told the Associated Press in 2014. Make no mistake, when President Tong talks about survival, he’s not talking about the Earth his grandchildren will inherit or vague notions of the consequences of inaction, he means specifically evacuation, relocation, climate refugees – you know, survival.

This rhetoric from President Tong is not a guilt-inducing scare tactic aimed at the West, but rather a matter of official policy for Kiribati, which has followed up these statements by producing plans to relocate Kiribati residents internally from island to island (which has already begun), and enacting a “migration with dignity” policy which helps those who wish to migrate develop their educational level or attain a vocational skill, and then connects them to communities in their new home so they’re not treated as climate refugees, but can immediately and meaningfully contribute upon arrival. Perhaps most telling of all though is the purchasing of 6,000 acres of land as a back-up plan on the not-so-neighboring Fiji over 2,000 miles (3,500 km) away.

“We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it,” President Tong told the Associated Press in the same interview referenced above from 2014.

While ambitious, this land purchase on Fiji should set the reality of climate migration in, with a whole new category of refugees not produced by violent upheaval or economic hardship. Fiji itself has begun the process of moving its own citizens from low-lying areas at great cost, and plans to move more as soon as funding is found. This fact, coupled with Tropical Cyclone Winston, which struck Fiji in February of this year as the most powerful storm ever on record in the Southern Hemisphere, paints a dire future for the back-up home of Kiribati’s people.

There are still a lot of uncertainties in the equation that spells doom for Kiribati. Despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a global rise in sea levels by a meter as soon as 2100, and Kiribati’s islands only averaging a height of two meters above sea level, there’s still not a clear consensus, either in-country or among sea and climate change experts, on what the ultimate ramifications will be and when they’ll take place. Unfortunately for Kiribati, sea levels could stop rising tomorrow and there’d still be a host of seemingly intractable issues to deal with.

Kiribati’s economy is 10,000 times smaller than the U.S. and defending this fragile community will be expensive. On top of this, Kiribati suffers from very high rates of unemployment and infant mortality, widespread poverty, frequent outbreaks of diseases and viruses due to poor sanitation, and population loss. Then there’s early climate change effects which include collapse of marine ecosystems that provide food and livelihoods, coastal erosion, drought, and flooding: the latter has made large tracts of previously farmable land infertile due to salinization of the soil and contaminated fresh water supplies used for drinking. Kiribati’s drinking water has been in perpetual crisis for some time now and treated government water only reaches select communities and runs for just a few hours each week.

Even as these very real consequences of climate change have already been felt, still there are a number among Kiribati’s own population that are far from all-in on combatting climate change. The country is overwhelmingly Christian, with many believing that faith in climate science challenges divine authority. There are clear generational divides as well amongst the population, with younger generations learning about climate science in school and being more open to the government’s various plans to mitigate the effects of climate change, while older generations don’t see it the same way. For most older citizens there’s limited understanding of the causes or consequences of climate change, and a policy like “migration with dignity” is close to both heresy and absurdism. As one younger observer put it, speaking of his grandparents, “They just aren’t interested. They mean to live and die where they were born.”

The uncertainties for Kiribati even extend into the political sphere, as President Tong reached his three-term limit in March 2016. In landslide defeat (39% to 60%), the candidate running from President Tong’s party was soundly rejected by the voters, which some observers see as a rebuttal of Kiribati’s former President, his international climate change awareness raising, and his climate change mitigation efforts. Kiribati’s current President, Taneti Mamau, has shown himself to be a lot less zealous in bringing awareness to climate change, and the imminence of its effect on Kiribati. This is an unsettling trend among many Pacific Island Nation leaders and politicians: it’s far easier to tell fellow citizens that everything is going to be alright than to constantly sound the alarm as former President Tong did.

Looking into the future 30 years from now, it’s likely we’ll be faced with one of three realities: Kiribati survives but just barely as it somehow successfully pauses the effects of climate change, or Kiribati was the first and last tragedy of the climate change era as its demise sets of increased global action to combat climate change, or Kiribati was the first on a long and growing list of former island nations, foreshadowing the fate of millions more in low-lying coastal areas.

Citations and Further Reading

CNN: Record-setting Storm Kills 1 in Pacific

The Desert Sun: Kiribati Facing Sea Level Rise Impacts Now

E3G: Judging the Cop21 Outcome and What’s Next for Climate Action

The Economist: Making Waves, In the South Pacific Climate Change Animates a Presidential Election

The Guardian: ‘They say that in 30 years maybe Kiribati will disappear’

International Business Times: Kiribati Climate Change Relocation Refugee Crisis?

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