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Leader of Island Nation Advocates Exit Strategy for Rising Seas

President of Kiribati says it may be more practical to flee to higher ground than to stay and defend low-lying atolls.

Picture of Tarawa in Pacific
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North Tarawa emerges from the Pacific as narrow strands of land, broken by sandy intertidal channels. One side is the dark blue of the deep Pacific; the other is a shallow lagoon. Few people live on North Tarawa, but the southern part of the atoll is one of the most densely populated places in the Pacific Islands.


It's rare to find the leader of a country who speaks as passionately about climate change as Anote Tong does. Then again, his country of 110,000 people makes the short list of places most vulnerable to climate change.

The president of Kiribati, Tong has become best known for admonishing wealthy countries for burning through fossil fuels at the expense of low-lying atolls scattered across the equatorial Pacific. On Kiribati's 33 islands, the average land height rises little more than six feet (about 2 meters) above the sea.

After years of lamenting that polar bears engendered more sympathy than the Kiribati people, Tong boarded a Greenpeace ship in the Arctic last fall to get a close look at a melting glacier and happened upon one of the big white bears.

"As I gazed into his eyes," he wrote, "I felt a connection, as if we shared something in common—that our future survival on this planet would depend on our ability to arrest the escalating pace of climate change."

The globe-trotting president, who attended high school and college in New Zealand and earned a master's degree from the London School of Economics, has brought considerable attention to Kiribati (pronounced Keer-ree-bahs), a poor, isolated nation tucked so close to the international dateline that it often falls into the fold of the world map.

Picture of Anote Tong president of Kiribati
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Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, addressed the United Nations General Assembly last September about the impact of climate change on his country.


Tong's advocacy has earned him critics, mostly local opposition party leaders and some religious leaders in his Christian nation. A few scientists cringe at some of his pronouncements about erosion and flooding, saying Tong sometimes overstates the role that sea-level rise has played so far. With the average rise of a few inches in recent decades, these scientists say that Kiribati's islands haven't lost appreciable ground. Troubles with flooding often have more to do with El Niño-La Niña climate cycles, the fast-growing population settling in vulnerable areas, and the mining of sand and coral for building materials.

Tong, who wraps up his third and final term in July, granted an interview last fall in his presidential office on Tarawa Atoll, the capital island of Kiribati. He shared his views on why he purchased 8.5 square miles (22 square kilometers) of land in Fiji and continues to look overseas to buy more land.

Wearing a collared shirt and a lavalava skirt favored by men in the tropical heat, he eased onto a couch and kicked off his sandals for the interview.

Would you please explain your vision for the future of Kiribati, given projected rise in sea levels?

The science is telling us we really have a problem ahead of us. The projected scenarios of sea-level rise are not good for us. The question is: Do we deny it, do we ignore it, or do we respond?

Have you seen the causeway? It's falling apart. I asked one of my ministers to visit one of the communities [on the island of Abaiang] over the weekend. I've been worried about them because the freshwater pond had been breached.

It used to be a few hundred meters away, the sea. Now it's not. So it's affecting the freshwater. It's affecting food crops. I project that within five to ten years they will have to leave.

The science is telling us we really have a problem ahead of us. The question is: Do we deny it, do we ignore it, or do we respond?
 Anote Tong president of Kiribati

How long does Kiribati have? A few decades? Until the end of the century?

You are talking about D-day. There is no D-day. It's already happening now. All that will happen is that it will get worse. We may be talking one or two communities today. In five years, we may be talking about a half dozen communities. In ten years' time, we may be talking about many more communities. And maybe in 50 years, we are talking about the entire nation.

Do you see the Kiribati people will have to move off the islands en masse, or will rising seas displace just a few?

My common sense tells me that if we do not do anything, then most of the people will have to go. But if we do try to do some adaptation—which would be a very costly exercise, but we have committed ourselves to doing it—then we might be able to maintain some level of population, but certainly not most.

Picture of people of Kiribati
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A boy is covered with reef mud on South Tarawa in Kiribati, which is a chain of 33 atolls and islands just meters above sea level.


Walk me through why you bought land in Fiji for $8 million? Was this opportunistic investment to snag rare freehold land?

Yes.

Is this to grow food for the Kiribati people?

Yes.

Is it a safety net, an exit strategy for the Kiribati people? Or all of these? I've heard you say all different sorts of things.

I regard it as a very worthwhile investment because the price of land in Fiji will go up. Freehold land is getting short. People in Kiribati need land.

Have you got your sights on specific places?

I know Australia and New Zealand are selling off land to the Chinese. So why shouldn't we be buying land? Land is going to be a premium. With sea-level rise, a lot of good land is going to go. There are going to be cities underwater.

What about moving people internally, such as the unrealized plan to relocate 25,000 people to Kiritimati [pronounced Christmas], the largest island in Kiribati?

Kiritimati Island has the same problem as these islands, so providing sea defenses, in order to build it up, is going to be a huge task. The point that nobody has really grasped is: If we build up these lands, it's going to cost billions of dollars. We might as well be buying land for millions of dollars elsewhere.

I know I frighten people in the way I speak about this. Nobody wants to believe that this is going to happen. There is a great sense of denial among my people. They don't want to believe it. As a leader, I have to think about all of these possibilities.

Picture of a Kiribati woman digging for shellfish
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Storm clouds gather above low-lying Bikeman islet in Kiribati.


A Japanese engineering firm has proposed building giant artificial floating islands for the Kiribati people. Is this a serious proposal?

The Japanese have some very detailed drawings. They are serious about it and so am I. Clearly when your choices are limited, you would consider anything. [It's a] bit of science fiction. But when you are drowning, you will grasp at anything to stay afloat.

You feel like you are drowning?

I can tell you, at one time, I felt very depressed. There was a great sense of futility, that there was nothing we can do about it, that we just have to accept our fate as it is. I had to motivate myself to gain confidence to go ahead.

You have expressed concern about the Kiribati people being stateless. Can you explain?

My concern is, What would happen to our people, our culture? I don't see our people migrating somewhere en masse, in one bulk. If we do move somewhere else, what becomes of us? Can we credibly say this is the new country of Kiribati? What country would allow that? This is an unprecedented international issue.

You talk a lot about preparing your people to migrate with dignity as desirable overseas workers. So far the programs to train people and give them skills they can market abroad are very small.

We have to get it into the minds of our young people. They are beginning to do that. I'll give you an example. Under the Pacific Access Category [lottery] scheme of migration to New Zealand, they give us a quota of 75 every year. When it started off, that quota was never taken up because our people don't like to go. They don't like to leave home. But once we started talking about climate change, and what the future holds for the young people, the queue started getting long.

It's so cold in New Zealand compared to here.

Better cold than drowned.

Picture of storm clouds over a Kiribati island
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Storm clouds gather above low-lying Bikeman islet in Kiribati.


Do you think the wealthier nations, such as the United States or those in Europe, that have historically stoked the skies with greenhouse gases, and now China too, have a financial obligation to poor countries like Kiribati that are on the front lines of climate change?

I believe those countries with capacity to do something about it have the obligation to do something about it. The international community still is not moving fast enough. By the time anything is mobilized, it's going to be too late for many of our communities. If the international community tomorrow agreed to zero emission levels, countries like Kiribati will still be in trouble.

OK. Flipping this around, there's a lot of internal dissention in wealthy countries on climate change. People are reluctant to alter their lifestyles or shortchange economic growth to reduce emissions. Why should we make sacrifice for countries like yours?

Put it this way: In the United States, if you are building a fire and bothering your next-door neighbor, are there legal instruments to regulate your behavior? If the United States and if China could keep their emissions to themselves, then fine, we have no problem. They cannot. So they are achieving their development at our cost.

One reason climate change seems easy to ignore is the worse is yet to come—a future and distant threat that can be set aside to focus to more pressing matters. How do you see this?

Unfortunately, governments cannot think past the next election. This is why I keep talking about global leadership. It has to go beyond the national level.

Of all the environmental threats facing Kiribati, could you rank the most pressing: Is it the lack of water, the lack of land, food security?

Water is probably the most imminent problem because that is the lifeline.

A few scientists, especially geologists who study the formation of islands and atolls, say you have sometimes overstated the role of sea-level rise on current problems. They have done studies showing little land has been lost, some [atolls] have gained ground, and project that Kiribati atolls will rise with the seas, just as they have since the end of the last ice age.

I'd rather believe the scientists who say the sea level is rising and that we have a problem, rather than believe those people. There's too much at risk. There's too much at stake. They are probably talking from the top of the mountain; if they believe that, let them come [live] here. I'd rather plan for the worst and hope for the best.

A grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting contributed to research for this article.

Follow Kenneth R. Weiss on Twitter.

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