The South Pacific island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-uh-bahs) is comprised of 32 atolls and a raised coral island. It is the only nation in all four hemispheres of the Earth. But the future of the 100,000 residents is uncertain because of fears that global climate change will raise the ocean levels, making Kiribati, which is only 6 feet above sea level, uninhabitable by the 2050s.
“We are looking forward to quite unpleasant stories for us, it doesn’t matter what levels of emissions are agreed to by the international community” says Kiribati President Anote Tong. “The momentum of what has already been emitted into the atmosphere will ensure that the level of sea level rise will continue to affect us very, very adversely in the future.”
President Tong recently joined the board of Seattle-based Conservation International and he was in Seattle in early October 2012 for a board meeting. I met with him in a private dining room at the Four Seasons hotel where we spoke of the implications and possible solutions to his country’s dilemma:
- Build up some of the islands of Kiribati to stay above the rising ocean or create floating islands. The nation has not yet begun engineering studies to get an estimate of the cost of raising the islands. Japanese researchers have begun to look at creating floating islands for Kiribati. But President Tong says that even if the engineering studies show raising or floating the islands would work, and even if Kiribati did get the foreign aid necessary for such huge undertakings, it’s unlikely there will be enough acreage for all the people of Kiribati.
- Relocate the population. President Tong has begun to research moving all the people of Kiribati to other nations. “That is the reality of the situation. We cannot deny this, because up until now, there have not been other options put before us — we have to relocate them.” President Tong says it will be a gradual process that can take place while maintaining citizens' dignity. “One of the categories I’ve tried to reject is that we would be climate refugees.”
If they leave will they still be citizens of Kiribati?
“I suspect that decision will not be mine,” says President Tong. “I’m only in office for the next three years. I think it is important that people maintain that link and that the law of Kiribati allow people to maintain that link. I would like to see opportunity for people say, I live here, say in Seattle, and have the opportunity to move back to Kiribati if and when they choose.”