Kiribati, a tiny nation on a chain of 33 atolls and reef islands in the South Pacific, could be the first entire country eliminated by climate change. As seas rise, the islands are increasingly inundated by high tides, and islanders believe the sea will swallow their lands in less than a generation.
That has thrust former three-term president Anote Tong into the spotlight. Facing the reality of his country's rapid disappearance, Tong spent his presidency making practical preparations for the relocation Kiribati's 100,000 citizens out of their homeland to ensure that when it truly becomes unlivable they won't become refugees.
Planning for what he calls "migration with dignity", Tong purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji for the I-Kiribati to move to and relocated 75 citizens a year to New Zealand. But dignity, he maintained, also means having a homeland for the diaspora to remember, so he suggested raising one of the islands to protect it for posterity.
Together with the leaders of other Small Island Developing States, Kiribati advocated for a fossil free world by 2050 and, famously, ensured a Paris Agreement that aims for no more than 1.5 degrees of warming, half a degree less than the original draft. No longer president, Tong continues to be a voice for environmental protection and marginalized communities that are most vulnerable to climate change, as Arielle Duhaime-Ross discovered in a conversation in New York.
Arielle Duhaime-Ross: Tell us a little about Kiribati, what does climate change mean for the country?
Anote Tong: Barely two meters above sea level on average is the elevation above water. Very narrow strips of land, no mountains at all. So we definitely are most vulnerable and the front line of what is happening with climate change.
ADR: What are the human consequences of climate change on the country of Kiribati?
AT: We have communities who have to leave their villages because the village is no longer there. You have this church sitting out in the middle of the sea because the tide is in but this is where the village used to be. So the church is there because I asked the villagers to put a sea wall around it so that it can stay there as clear evidence of what is happening.
I was in one of the communities when the sea wall broke into a freshwater pond. I was not there after that but I've been advised that the food crops have died, the water lens has been destroyed. I can see that community relocating in the very near future.
ADR: The country of Kiribati on average is about 6 and half feet above the sea level right now is that correct?
AT: It would be about that but most of the communities, the people, when the tide is in, they are just living where the water is lapping, so whenever there is a king tide or a bit of the wind, then you get this waves coming over destroying properties and homes. We've had flooding where we've not had flooding in the past. These are the things we are experiencing today.
ADR: When people think about flooding, we think about houses being destroyed and people having to relocate, but are there other consequences to flooding?
AT: So when waves top over on the land you get many things happening. One being the erosion so you get destruction of property. Second, you get the water destroying the water lens because we get our water from underground water. This is what we live on, we survive on, we don't have rivers. So this is where we draw our potable water. So once that gets destroyed, it has implications on the health of our people because they'd be drinking bad water.
ADR: Can anything be done to save Kiribati?
AT: I think there is. I think it's very doable, but the question is where we get the resources to do it. Give me a few billion dollars and there's no question in my mind that there's quite a lot that we could do. I've been quoted as talking about floating islands. We'd have to depend on the international community and this is what I've been advocating. I just come back from Europe trying to advocating possible solutions to the challenge that we face because if nothing is done, then according to the projections of the government panel on climate change, we will be gone.
ADR: How long does Kiribati have?
AT: We think in 30 to 50 years something very drastic, if not before then.
ADR: Can you talk about the concept of migration with dignity?
AT: We have to acknowledge the brutal reality that some of our people have to relocate. So knowing that, we don't want to be just sitting there waiting for it to happen and do nothing about it. This is why I've been advocating this "migration with dignity" because I've always resented the way are being referred to as potential "climate refugees." We don't want to be refugees. It's a bad term.
ADR: Why is that a bad term?
AT: It's undignifying, very undignifying. We would have lost our homes, we don't want to lose our dignity, we don't want to lose our pride. If we train our people and they become skilled, then they would migrate with dignity and on merit, they would not be people running away from something. They would be migrating, relocating as people with skills as members of communities they go into, even leaders, I hope. We don't want to be the category of people that want to go to other countries and are being resisted, being pushed away. This is happening, we can see this, we should be learning, taking lessons from what's happening in Europe. In that part of the world and the Pacific we get people wanting to migrate to Australia they have been put into camps.
ADR: Kiribati has bought some land in Fiji, are you hoping most of your citizens will end up there?
AT: Fiji has been the only country that's come forward, stepped forward when nobody else would. And they've said that if and when Kiribati and Tuvalu should need somewhere to go in the event of sea level rise, Fiji is willing to accommodate. Now that has been the kind of compassionate response that I expected of people because I believe people to be compassionate. So that is very human, very merciful, I must say.