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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A Nation's Climate Dilemma

Kiribati is on the frontline of climate change, and it is a human issue, not an economic issue, which needs to be addressed now, not later.  What will we do within the next twenty years, and where will our people go (Tong, 2009).

On December 22, 1987, the United Nations General Assembly issued a significant recognition: global warming should be a matter of concern for all humanity. It called upon the international community to join forces in preparation for the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. Resolution 44/206 brought attention to the General Assembly, highlighting the "Possible adverse effects of sea level rise on islands and coastal areas, particularly in low-lying coastal areas" (Tabai, 1994: 3). This acknowledgment marked a pivotal moment in recognizing the urgent need to address the potential impacts of climate change on vulnerable regions, such as islands and coastal areas.

Two years later, on November 16, 1989, the Honorable Babera Kirata, then Minister of Home Affairs and Decentralization in Kiribati, delivered a poignant address at the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise on Male’ Island in the Republic of the Maldives. In his speech, he drew attention to the striking parallels between the Maldives and Kiribati, emphasizing the shared challenges posed by changes in their remarkably similar natural environments. He underscored the tangible consequences that Kiribati would inevitably confront if global warming failed to receive the necessary attention and action. Kirata's address served as a compelling call to action, urging the international community to recognize and address the imminent threats facing vulnerable island nations due to climate change.

The groundwater would quickly become saline, making it impossible to obtain potable water, and agriculture would be destroyed.  The plankton upon which fish live will disappear, and the livelihood of Kiribati people, who depend on fish, would be seriously affected.  The effect of rising sea levels, accompanied by strong winds and high waves, would be disastrous for Kiribati (Kirata, 1989: 2).  

The following year, in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its inaugural scientific assessment on climate change, a seminal moment that raised more questions than it answered. Amidst the complexity of its findings, two certainties emerged. Firstly, the report affirmed that the Earth's naturally occurring greenhouse effect played a crucial role in maintaining the planet's temperature. Secondly, it unequivocally stated that emissions resulting from human activities were significantly contributing to the escalation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, ultimately leading to a warming of the Earth's surface (IPCC, 1990). Despite these stark warnings and insights, the report failed to garner widespread attention from governments and policymakers, largely due to lingering doubts about the scientific consensus and a lack of urgency regarding the issue.

By 1996, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had reached a significant milestone by acknowledging a "viable" connection between human activities and global climate patterns. However, despite this acknowledgment, a considerable degree of uncertainty persisted regarding the precise magnitude and specific patterns of climate variability. This lingering uncertainty hindered the ability of scientists to draw stronger, more unequivocal conclusions, which, if presented with greater confidence, could have potentially galvanized stronger political will and action on the issue at the time (IPCC, 1996). Some critics argued that the scientific argument lacked crucial empirical evidence to fully support its assertions during this period.

Meanwhile, on September 14, 1999, the Republic of Kiribati attained full membership in the United Nations. In its inaugural statement at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS), President Tito of Kiribati addressed the pressing issue of global warming, signaling the nation's growing recognition and concern regarding the threats posed by climate change.

Globalization is advocated as the order of today. However, adverse effects can cause irreparable damage if no corrective action is taken immediately.  Coming from a small island state like Kiribati, which comprises 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 (Tito, 2000: 2).  

Kiribati's subsequent president, the Honorable Anote Tong, maintained the urgent call for global attention to and action on the issue of global warming. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) annually, President Tong emphasized the escalating adverse effects of climate change on his nation, urging meaningful action from the international community. However, despite his impassioned pleas, these appeals often resulted in little more than economic debates among larger nations.

The turning point came on February 1, 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a seminal report that many worldwide considered a game-changer in the discourse on climate change. This report presented compelling scientific evidence confirming the reality of a warming planet, providing irrefutable support for the urgent need for action.

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 levels (IPCC, 2007: 30).    Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result 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: 37).

The unequivocal statement on climate change and its connection to human activity by the IPCC provided the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) with a significant advantage as it intensified its advocacy for action on climate change. During the 62nd United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 2008, representatives from small island countries made impassioned appeals, emphasizing the urgent need for immediate attention to the devastating impacts of climate change. These impacts were already undermining territorial integrity and posing existential threats to the national sovereignties of many small island states.

As a small country, Kiribati places excellent confidence in the international community for its survival, and we hope that our repeated appeals to this body to address this critical issue will receive more robust 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 destruction and is preserved for use by many generations to come (Kirata, 2007: 4).

With specific scientific evidence supporting climate change, AOSIS member states felt hopeful that the global community would respond to the climate change crisis with decisive actions. However, a year later, many leaders from AOSIS nations found themselves once again addressing the settled climate debate in their annual UNGASS speeches.  

Mitigation and adaptation strategies are and will continue to be integral to our response to climate change.  It would indeed be naïve to suggest otherwise.  These strategies only provide short and medium-term solutions, though.  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 significant emitter of greenhouse gases.  Its mitigation efforts would, therefore, be insignificant to the global climate change situation.  Nevertheless, we will do our part and explore appropriate renewable and efficient energy technology in our islands (Tong, 2008: 1).  

To spearhead the global effort against climate change, in collaboration with Conservation International and the New England Aquarium, the Kiribati government established the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). At its inception, it stood as the largest protected marine area globally, encompassing over 400,000 square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean, equivalent to 11% of Kiribati’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

One year later, on June 11, 2009, the UNGASS adopted Resolution A/RES/63/281, which urged the relevant organs of the United Nations to enhance their efforts in tackling climate change, particularly its security implications (United Nations, 2009: 2). This marked the first instance where the international community explicitly linked climate change to peace and security. This political advancement instilled significant optimism among AOSIS member state leaders, including President Anote Tong, as they geared up for the COP 15 conference.

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

The Copenhagen COP 15 meeting yielded minimal progress in establishing a directive for reducing global carbon emissions, disappointing countries that had high expectations for the conference's outcomes. Nevertheless, this setback did not dampen the nation's determination to elevate the already devastating impacts of climate change on their nation to a critical global issue. In an effort to showcase the tangible effects of climate change that have long afflicted its land and people, Kiribati convened a multinational conference in Tarawa.

The inaugural 2010 Tarawa Climate Change Conference (TCCC) aimed to galvanize global leaders into acknowledging climate change as an urgent and genuine issue warranting serious attention. By bringing these leaders to the frontlines of climate change, the conference underscored the environmental costs of inaction. Testimonies from I-Kiribati citizens further emphasized the human toll of climate change, while firsthand experience of life in Kiribati underscored the pressing urgency of the moment. As a result of the conference, the Ambo Declaration was crafted—a non-legally binding agreement between nations to address climate change. While 12 of the 15 foreign delegations adopted the declaration, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States opted for a 'bystander' status.  

In 2011, a multinational youth drama team composed of performers from three of the most climatically endangered nations—Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Tokelau—collaborated on the creation of the Water is Rising production. Sponsored by UCLA and the governments of the represented nations, this production embarked on a tour across the United States, aiming to raise awareness about climate change and humanize climate science. Simultaneously, Kiribati hosted the first-ever UN visit from a Secretariat General that same year. Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General at the time, toured the capital island and engaged in discussions with numerous I-Kiribati, gaining firsthand insight into how climate change has profoundly affected their lives. Upon his departure, he pledged to amplify their stories and plight to the broader international community.

On September 26, 2012, President Tong once more took the podium at the UNGASS, emphasizing the enduring impacts and profound devastation that his nation has endured over a significant period due to the effects of climate change.

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.  I have repeatedly spoken of the natural and existential threat to my nation.  Each time, I have reminded you of the need for urgent action to address climate change and rising sea levels to ensure the long-term survival of Kiribati.  I frequently watch 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: 1).    

Almost one month after President Tong's address to the UN, Hurricane Sandy struck the New York City area. The storm resulted in the loss of over 40 lives and caused an estimated $50 billion in property damages, making it one of the most destructive storms to hit the United States, second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The reaction to the storm varied from shock to disbelief, prompting many in the United States to contemplate the environmental changes occurring on our planet. Then-Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, remarked:

Our climate is changing.  And while the increase in extreme weather worldwide may or may not be the culprit, the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action (Silverstine, 2012: 1).

Additional concern over a changing environment was further highlighted by the lead article in the November 30th, 2012, issue of the Journal of Science titled "Experts agree global warming is melting the world rapidly." The article emphasized that the 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).

Despite being recognized as fact since 2007, skepticism about climate change persisted among many in Kiribati. Former President Tito believed that the government had gone too far by continuously advocating for climate change action on the world stage and attracting the attention of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. 

I think they’re overplaying it, and there’s a danger in bluffing the world… President Tong has painted a picture that people are ready to leave Kiribati when that is not the case (RNZI, 2011: 1).  

In addition to political disagreements over climate change, Kiribati faces a significant divide between scientific evidence and religious doctrine. As of 2005, 96% of the Kiribati population identified as Christian (Government of Kiribati, 2007). A 2007 ABC news piece highlighted a Kiribati Catholic high school principal who expressed disbelief in climate change and found solace in God's promise never to flood the Earth again, despite mounting evidence supporting global warming (Weir, 2007). In the discourse surrounding climate change, religious beliefs have often clashed with scientific findings, leading to skepticism and discrediting of warnings about climate change.

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