climate change social justice

The extraordinary choices facing small island states

Kiribati is a string of coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean. At its highest point it is just six feet above sea level, making it one of the most vulnerable places on earth. On current trends, climate change will sweep it away. As a sovereign state, Kiribati has 110,000 citizens whose only legal home is the archipelago. What happens to them as the islands erode and homes are washed away? Where do they go?

These are questions that have pre-occupied Anote Tong, who served three terms as president and has continued his climate change work since leaving office. His story is told in Mary Robinson’s book Climate Justice, and also in the film Anote’s Ark. (See this video for a shorter doc from the same director) The options are limited, but Tong has taken steps to secure Kiribati’s future in four different ways.

Option one is the default, which is to stay and fight. While president, Tong oversaw an adaptation strategy that included building sea walls, and planting mangroves planted to protect shorelines. Key infrastructure was raised to protect electricity and water supplies during floods and high tides. Local communities developed disaster preparedness programmes, and some people built homes on stilts. The current administration favours adaptation and appealing to tourism, though all of this may only be delaying the inevitable.

“Migration with dignity is a real strategy” says Tong of option number two. “I want migration from our country to be a painless process, even a happy process, for those who choose to go. They will go on merit. We will prepare them.” There is currently no legal definition of a climate refugee. Even if their homeland no longer exists and they did little to cause its inundation, no other country is obliged to take climate refugees. Certain countries have created special categories however, and New Zealand supports set numbers of people from Kiribati.

Immigration is by choice, but there may come a time when a wholesale evacuation is the only safe thing to do. Looking ahead to this possibility, in 2014 Anote Tong spent $8 million and bought six thousand acres of forest land in Fiji. (Somewhat strangely, it bought the land from the Church of England*) It made Kiribati the first country in the world to have a back-up homeland, should the worst happen. “We would hope not to put everyone on this one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it” said Tong at the time. The land isn’t exactly prime real estate, and there are a handful of Fijian locals there already who say it couldn’t support more than a few hundred people. Some argue that the whole exercise was a symbolic protest to the international community rather than an attempt at a genuine solution, which doesn’t invalidate it in my opinion. Looking back, Tong suggests that it’s psychologically helpful: “Buying land provides a moral sense of comfort that we have an option.”

Tong’s most recent idea is the most radical. If the people can’t be moved, and the land can’t be preserved, what if Kiribati became the world’s first floating nation? He has worked with a series of companies to develop concepts for floating cities. The ideas so far are vast, sci-fi structures that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Needless to say, Kiribati doesn’t have those billions, but the internet loves this kind of thing. If Anote Tong is pursuing them to keep Kiribati on the agenda, then once again, that would be fine by me. I’d be interested to know what one might devise with more of an appropriate technology angle though. Floating homes are being built in the Netherlands, and communities that float within Kiribati’s lagoons might not be impossible.

Kiribati is not the only place facing these challenges. The Maldives, Micronesia, and a dozen other countries face potential annihilation in the next century. Many others will see large parts of their countries become uninhabitable, and these sorts of impossible questions will not go away.

* There are suggestions that when compared to other land deals in the same area, the Church of England charged Kiribati four times more than the land was worth. I hope they are unfounded, but it would not surprise me if true. The CofE has some good climate change initiatives, but as soon as land and money is involved, their principles sadly seem to go out the window.


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