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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Climate Change and Kiribati

The IPCC has estimated that the Pacific Islands have contributed just .0012 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, leading them to be among the lesser contributors to global warming. Still, they remain at the most significant risk from its impacts (Singh, 2007: 1).  

As early as 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm about the profound impact of climate change, predicting that one of its most significant consequences would be an increase in human migration (Brown, 2008: 8). The report emphasized that populations living in coastal areas would be particularly vulnerable, often resorting to migration as a last-ditch adaptation strategy. This assertion underscores the immediate threat faced by residents of coral atoll nations in the face of a changing global environment.

Of the five world states comprised predominantly of coral atolls, four are situated in the Pacific Ocean. Kiribati stands as one of these nations on the front lines, grappling with the urgent and tangible consequences of climate change.

Residents adapt to the changing environment by moving away from shores, building sea walls, and creating new inhabitable lands, while others leave the islands altogether.  In Kiribati, three former inhabited islets off the coast of Tarawa -Bikeman, Buariki, and Abanuea - have fallen beneath the ocean since 2000 (Williams, 2001: 2). 

Communities throughout Kiribati have long been implementing adaptation strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change. However, for many of these communities, migration stands out as an inevitable survival tactic. At a pivotal 2007 international conference on climate change, Tukabu Teroroko, Kiribati’s Environment Minister, poignantly expressed the sentiments of his fellow citizens. He noted that while Kiribati's residents were reluctant to lose their homeland, they also harbored deep concerns about potentially becoming second-class citizens in other countries (Makan, 2007). This sentiment encapsulates the profound fears shared by many in the nation.

We have so many unique things- the way we dress, the way we eat, the way we speak. I don't believe we will disappear soon, but we will lose our identity as more people move away. Then we will be nothing, never to be known again in the history of the world (Williams, 2001: 1).  

In addition to its social implications, climate change presents significant environmental challenges for residents of coral atolls. Rising sea levels and unpredictable storm patterns result in seawater inundation, disrupting the agricultural industry and posing threats to infrastructure. Furthermore, the erosion of lands caused by more frequent and powerful king tide storm surges diminishes the natural capacity of the freshwater lens, creating unhealthy living environments. For atoll dwellers, this stark reality sends a simple yet clear message: without access to freshwater, life becomes unsustainable.

To gain recognition among the broader UN community, 42 nations came together to form an ad-hoc coalition known as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). This coalition aims to draw attention to the tangible impacts of climate change already being felt worldwide. AOSIS advocates for mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, recognizing that its member states are among the first victims of climate change. They understand that their survival hinges on shifting public opinion and, consequently, changing complacent behaviors that contribute to the global warming crisis.

With a sense of urgency, the AOSIS coalition brought a pressing message to the Conference of COP 15 in 2009: limit warming to 1.5 degrees. They underscored that even moderate increases in greenhouse emissions could render many islands uninhabitable due to rising sea levels. Lacking significant financial or military power, the coalition's political leverage relied on finding sympathetic ears. Pacific Islanders passionately presented their cases, cultures, and proposals to mitigate climate change. However, the post-conference headlines told a different story: "1.5°C Rejected and Crushed in Copenhagen." The resulting Copenhagen Accord raised global warming limits to 2°C, a decision that could eventually submerge low-lying atolls under rising sea levels. This outcome left attendees with feelings of loss and doubt, questioning leaders who prioritized economic growth over human life.

It’s too late for countries like us.  If we could achieve zero emissions as a planet, we would still go down.

     -Hon. Anote Tong-

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