Presiding over a drowning island | #climatechange | Life Links | DW | 04.12.2015
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climate change

Presiding over a drowning island

A president speaks of impossible challenges. He is watching his Pacific island of Kiribati lose ground to rising seas and increasingly violent storms.

DW Life Links - Kiribati - #climatechange EINSCHRÄNKUNG

Anote Tong, President of Kiribati, is watching his Pacific island of Kiribati lose ground to rising seas and increasingly violent storms.

If the tiny island chain of Kiribati represents the world's canary in the coal mine, then we should all be listening. And the president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, is making as much noise as he can. The low-lying, Pacific islands that he calls home are dealing with increasingly violent storms and rising seas. It's already costing his government millions to keep the islands liveable.

The realities of climate change are just an idea for most people around the world but President Tong is facing the thought of being forced to leave his homeland. Last year, his government #link: part of an island in Fiji# with the knowledge that the Kiribati population of some 110,000 may have to relocate.

It's an impossible situation. But it has helped make him into a tireless advocate for cutting back on greenhouse gases that cause climate change. His latest move has been to argue for #link: new development of coal mines.# He spoke to Life Links reporter Gönna Ketels about the challenges his country is facing, starting with one of the toughest questions of all.

Do you think Kiribati can still be saved?

I believe anything is possible. The technology is available, the only question is, will the resources be made available for us to be able to do that. Given what is possible these days, what is being done, it is doable. The simple answer is, if (money from the United Nations) gets to us in time and there are sufficient amounts to deal with this, then perhaps we have a hope of being ready before it happens.

DW Life Links - Kiribati - #climatechange EINSCHRÄNKUNG

Whether the rising sea level swallows Kiribati or coastal erosion makes the country uninhabitable, Life Links reporter Gönna Ketels couldn't help but wonder if today's children might be the last to grow up in this beautiful part of the world.

What does being ready mean?

To be prepared. A lot of people are disputing that climate change is a reality because they don't see everybody going under water. Well, that's not what we want to wait for. What we want to act upon is see what the trend is. Are the people being affected? The answer is yes. Is it 100 percent? The answer is no. Is it 50 percent? The answer is no. Is it five percent? The answer may be yes, it may be 10 percent. It's that incremental progression, the numbers and the proportion of people being affected directly and very seriously. It is real. And as sensible people we have to act.

Can you explain what's at stake?

Kiribati consists of small islands, our land area is very small. Our association to the land is stronger than for those with a large piece of land. Land to us is sacred. We believe in the spiritual world. Each island has its own spiritual beings which we believe in. It's part of our culture, part of our life. The question is, what would happen to that part of our culture once all of that it gone?

DW Life Links - Kiribati - #climatechange EINSCHRÄNKUNG

‪Climate change‬ is putting the ancient equilibrium of Kiribati at risk. According to predictions, Kiribati could be swallowed by the rising sea level over the course of this century.

How worried are you for the future of the young generation?

I've learned not to get worried, I've learned to do things about it. I remain very committed and I remain ready to deal with the challenges. I've stopped being worried because it doesn't get you anywhere. What we need to do is find the solutions. With the challenges, I believe there are always new opportunities. Sometimes because we've never been challenged we don't explore these new opportunities that have always been there, but have never been looked at.

So buying this land in Fiji and preparing your people for "migration with dignity" as you call it, isn't that admitting defeat?

No. If you have a family, would you even consider the option of failure, even if it's only five percent? No. If the option of failing is five percent, you prepare plan B. So this is our plan B because people have to survive. As a leader, it is my responsibility to provide all of the options I can come up with.

DW Life Links - Kiribati - #climatechange EINSCHRÄNKUNG

The sea is threatening lives and taking away land in Kiribati. Flooding and high tides have become more frequent and are causing coastal erosion.

Some people have criticized the fact that you have spent millions on that land in Fiji and that it would have been better spent here. What do you say to that?

I simply say they don't know what they're talking about. They're talking from a distance. We need them to come here. We are spending millions just putting up sea defenses to protect the roads, you can see that. That's millions of dollars already and it won't protect the population in the future. We're talking about a huge amount of resources in order to deal with it, we, the countries affected. We know because we are dealing with it. It's not an academic, it's not a theoretical exercise. It's a practical way of trying to survive.

What are you expecting to come out of the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris?

It’s going to be difficult to reach an agreement. I think the mistake would be to continue to insist on the numbers, 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. The issue is: What will happen? What is it that we don’t want to happen? Or, what is it that needs to be done in order to avoid those things happening? Of course, for us, the science indicates perhaps 2 degrees is too much, 1.5 degrees maybe right. As far as I know from the science, even if we cut emission levels to zero, the momentum of the gases already in the atmosphere will ensure that we would be seriously affected. Really we’re talking about how we can survive beyond this point.

Do you even still care about what is decided in Paris?

The question is, will it have any meaning for us? The science indicates that even if the emission levels are zero, we would still be affected very seriously. Our future as a nation is still in question. Our focus is on remedies to that. What can the international community do? We hope there will be a positive response in Paris, but if not, we are also preparing plan B. We don't want to leave anything to chance.

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