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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

1987: A catalyst for concern

Updated: May 28, 2020

On December 22nd, 1987, the United Nations General Assembly recognized global warming as a concern and urged the development of the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. Resolution 44/206 was brought to the attention of the General Assembly and noted, “possible adverse effects of sea-level rise on islands and particularly in low-lying coastal areas.” Over the following years, representatives from low-lying small coastal and island states gathered to address the threat.

On November 16th, 1989, the Honorable Babera Kirata, then Minister of Home Affairs and Decentralization in Kiribati, addressed the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise in Male’ Island (Republic of the Maldives). Highlighting both the Maldives and Kiribati’s dilemma, he stated.

Over centuries the question of a rise in sea level was never heard of. Our ancestors lived happily on our islands, without fear that one day, our beautiful homes may be lost because of a deteriorating environment. We in this present generation have inherited those small islands and are proud to be owners of the beautiful homes they secured for us. If sea levels were to rise, the groundwater would quickly become saline, making it impossible to obtain fresh water. Agriculture would be destroyed, and high tides would wash away our communities.

Following the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise, the Alliance of Small Island States developed this accord. Environmental issues facing the world today clearly demonstrate that organisms and all the elements of nature, including land, water, and air cannot be exploited without far-reaching implications for the Earth and its environment. It has been proven more conclusively than at any other time in history that the welfare of mankind is inextricably linked to the state of the environment. It has also been established that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses have increased over the last two centuries. These increases are threatening to cause global warming and sea-level rise, which have become common concerns of humanity.

There is now a broad scientific consensus that the global mean temperature could rise approximately 1° to 2°C by the year 2030. It is predicted that even if the increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses were to be brought to a standstill immediately, however unrealistic, that might be, the global temperature and sea level would continue to rise for decades (Male’ Declaration, 1989).

In 1990, the IPCC released its first scientific assessment on climate change. Though more questions than answers, the report stated with certainty that:

1) The Earth’s naturally occurring greenhouse effect maintained the Earth’s temperature.

2) Emissions resulting from human activity were substantially increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses.

Few governments took note, claiming a lack in scientific certainty then, and by 1996, the IPCC concluded a ‘viable’ connection between human activity and the global climate. Still, uncertainty remained, preventing stronger, and more robust conclusions.

On September 14th, 1999, The Republic of Kiribati became a full United Nations member state. In its first address, President Teburoro Tito raised the issue of global warming.

Globalization is advocated as the order of today. However, there are adverse effects that can cause irreparable damage if no corrective action is taken immediately — coming from a small island state like Kiribati, which is made up of narrow strips of coral atolls rising no more than 2 meters above sea level. Global warming, climate change, and rising sea levels seriously threaten the basis of our existence, and we sometimes feel that our days are numbered.

Seven years later, with more than 90% assurance, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report concluded anthropogenic modern-day climate change was a threat to the environment and humanity.

Kiribati’s subsequent president, Hon. Anote Tong continued rallying for universal action on global warming. However, more prominent countries argued against the motion, claiming financial consequences would cause social devastation and create a substantial economic downturn.

On February 1st, 2007, the IPPC released what many considered to be an environmental protection game changer.

The warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level. Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly because of human activities since 1750. Observed increases in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century are very likely due to the observed increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations (IPCC, 2007).

This provided the clout AOSIS needed for their repeated appeals during the 62nd United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS). They highlighted the need for immediate action as climate change had already jeopardized territorial integrity and threatened sovereignty.

As a small country, Kiribati places high confidence in the international community for its survival, and we hope that our repeated appeals to this body in addressing this critical issue will receive stronger political support and commitment. There is no more time to debate the issue as climate change is now a fact of life. It is now time to put words into action so that this living planet is protected from complete destruction and is preserved for use by our many generations to come (Kirata, 2007).

With scientific evidence in tow and a clearly defined mandate, AOSIS members finally had reason to hope for action.

Mitigation and adaptation strategies are and will continue to be integral components of our response to climate change. It would indeed be naïve to suggest otherwise. However, these plans only provide short and medium-term solutions. Ultimately, low-lying island countries like Kiribati will have to face the reality of their islands being unable to support life and plan accordingly. Kiribati is not a major emitter of greenhouse gasses. Its mitigation efforts would, therefore, be insignificant on a global scale. Nevertheless, we will do our part and explore appropriate renewable and efficient energy technology in our islands (Tong, 2008).

On June 11th, 2009, Resolution .A1RES/63/281, which encouraged vital organs of the United Nations to intensify efforts addressing climate change, especially its security implications, was adopted. Resolution A1RES/63/281 was the first time the UN drew an explicit connection between climate change, peace, and security. High hopes echoed from wall to wall as AOSIS member states prepared for COP 15.

I now sense a strong political commitment to doing something at Copenhagen. I must say, I am much more heartened now than I was four or five years ago when nobody was listening, we welcome this change (Tong, 2009).

COP15 resulted in disappointment. This, however, did not lessen the political will of AOSIS members aiming to make climate change a global issue of concern. Hoping to take charge of this movement, Kiribati held a multinational climate change conference. The 2010 Tarawa Climate Change Conference (TCCC) brought global leaders to the frontlines of climate change. The product of the meeting was the Ambo Declaration, a non-legally binding agreement between nations addressing climate change. Twelve of fifteen foreign delegations adopted the declaration. Canada, Great Britain, and the United States claimed bystander status.


In 2011, a multinational youth drama team from Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Tokelau toured across the United States of America. The Water is Rising, a collaboration between UCLA and three represented governments sought to raise awareness of the human faces of climate change through drama and performance. That same year, Kiribati hosted its first-ever UN Secretariat General visit. Hon. Ban Ki-moon toured South Tarawa and spoke with citizens, learning how climate change impacted daily lives, vowing to bring their stories to the rest of the world. The following year, President Tong addressed the UNGASS.

This is the seventh time I have had the honor to address this Assembly in my nine years as President of Kiribati. Each time I have sought to convey the same message. Each time I have spoken of the real and existential threat to my nation. Each time I have reminded you of the need for urgent action to address climate change and sea-level rise, to ensure the long-term survival of Kiribati. I frequently find myself watching my grandchildren and wonder what sort of a future we are leaving them. For their sake, climate change is an issue that I will continue to talk about for as long as I have breath in my body. We owe it to our children and their children’s children to act soon, so let us pray that God will give us the common sense to do the right thing for the future of humanity (Tong, 2012).

Almost one month to the day after President Tong’s address, Hurricane Sandy struck UN headquarters. Over 40 individuals perished, and an estimated $50 billion in property damages were assessed. Second, only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sandy ranked as one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history.

New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg stated:

Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather around the world may or may not be the culprit of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action (Silverstine, 2012).

The November 30th, 2012 Journal of Science’s lead article, Experts agree global warming is melting the world rapidly, highlighted the fact that an annual loss of 344 billion tons of glacial ice, accounting for 20% of current sea-level rise, was melting five times faster than observed in 2007 (Kerr, 2012).

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