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How to Lead a Nation That Will Be Swallowed by the Sea

The president of low-lying Kiribati has spent nearly a decade trying to save his people from rising sea levels. There’s a good chance he will not succeed. This is how he leads a nation that will likely not exist in 100 years.

by Brian Merchant
Dec 3 2015, 4:00pm

Illustrations by Kevin VQ Dam

This story appears in the December issue of VICE magazine.

The far-flung nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bas) spans a cluster of 33 atolls in the central Pacific Ocean. The islands are tiny but widely dispersed; if you count its territorial waters, the country is technically the size of India. It's also in the process of vanishing: Kiribati has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first nations projected to be swallowed by rising sea levels.

Something like this has happened in the country before, on a much smaller scale. More than half a century ago, when Kiribati was still under British rule, and the majority of it was still called the Gilbert Islands, drought and environmental disaster on some of the smaller isles spurred colonialist forces to relocate hundreds of Kiribati citizens to Gizo, an island in the neighboring Solomon chain, where they were slowly integrated into the local population.

That was in 1954. In October 2015, Kiribati's president, Anote Tong, traveled to Gizo. His staff said it was the first time that a president of Kiribati had visited the mostly forgotten refugee community. The occasion was cheerful on its face—Tong strolled through Gizo's major market, shaking hands; some of the islanders had recognized him from TV, some had no idea who he was, and some barely spoke the same language—but it was marked by a distinctly ominous undertone.

If climate change continues at the current rate, some of Kiribati's islands could all but disappear by the end of the century, begetting scenarios that may, in the near future, look a lot like the one that played out during Tong's visit to Gizo—a president walking among his far-flung countrymen, long since driven from their island homes.

Tong was first elected president of Kiribati in 2003 and will leave office next year. He's tan, and his hair and mustache are a matching shade of peppered white. For a man at the forefront of the environmental apocalypse, he's easygoing and quick to break out in a grin. Though he represents one of the globe's smallest, poorest nations (its population is just over 100,000, and its GDP ranks 193rd in the world), Tong has become one of the most outspoken advocates for strong climate policy, for an obvious reason: If he doesn't, the nation he has spent 12 years governing will cease to exist.

"The science is quite categorical," Tong told me. He said he has been fighting to spread awareness since the United Nations released its fourth major climate-assessment report. "That report, which came out in 2007, clearly indicated that we have a serious problem," he added. "Especially those of us on the front lines, the low-lying atoll island countries. According to the scenarios, we will be underwater before the century's out."

"It's too late for us."

The urgency and eloquence of his appeals, and the brutal reality they describe, have won him an outsize presence on the international stage. Tong has become a fixture at the UN, a figurehead for a number of ocean-conservation causes, and a powerful climate-change spokesperson. Last year, during an appearance on CNN, when asked by Fareed Zakaria about his people's future, he replied bluntly: "It's too late for us."

Kiribati's fate provides a rare glimpse of the future world under climate change. The tiny island nation is the canary in our global coal mine, and it will bear the brunt of climate change more intensely and much sooner than nearly anywhere else.

"We cannot keep doing what we are doing," Tong said. "Because we may be on the front line today, but other countries, other societies, other communities will be next."

In October, TED, the "ideas worth spreading" organization, invited Tong to be a special guest on an expeditions conference aboard the National Geographic Orion with a few dozen ocean scientists, millionaire investors, and public figures, for a talk about the crisis his nation faces. Sitting in the ship's lounge, he discussed predictions about rising sea levels, which alarmed him enough to take his message to the wider world.

"And of course, those projections have since been modified," he told me. "Not in our favor, but, actually, that it's going to happen much sooner." It's not a matter of centuries, he said, before Kiribati slips beneath the waves. "It's decades." He's probably right.

Predicting exactly how much sea levels will rise in coming years is tricky business, but the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that they will. There are two primary reasons: Oceans are absorbing the excess heat of global warming, perhaps as much as 90 percent. As the oceans get warmer, thanks to thermal expansion, they, well, expand. And rise. Meanwhile, melting land ice—especially in the Arctic, where Greenland is thawing fast, and Antarctica, where giant ice sheets are threatening to collapse—is running off into the ocean. Glacier melt and shifts in underground water tables are also factors, but expansion and polar melt are the biggest.

Thanks to these twin phenomena, sea levels are expected to rise significantly this century. Conservative estimates put the rise at just one foot, while the worst-case scenario is six feet and beyond. (New York is currently preparing for six feet of rise over the next 75 years.) Rising sea levels could be more, or less, depending on how much more carbon dioxide humanity decides to pump into the atmosphere, dictating how much warmer the oceans get and how much more polar ice we melt.

Even the lowest estimates spell trouble for Tong's homeland. On average, Kiribati is just six and a half feet above sea level. Many inhabited parts of the islands lie much lower. During high tides, for the vast majority of Kiribati, there will simply be nowhere to go. To say that climate change is on Kiribati's doorstep is an understatement; it's already in the living room, ruining the carpet.

Fierce storms and incrementally higher water levels are doing major damage in the country. While it's impossible to say a particular storm was caused by climate change, a typhoon hit Kiribati for the first time in the nation's history this year, and scientists say these are the kind of impacts we can expect to see as temperatures rise. Tong ticked off the extreme weather events assaulting his country. "Coastal erosion," he said. "We are seeing flooding that we never experienced in the past. Earlier this year we had a cyclone, or the fringes of a cyclone, which we never experienced in the past. So homes are just being washed out. These are new events which never, ever happened in the past."

The crisis has led Kiribati to an unfortunate array of milestones. It is the first country to buy land in a foreign nation to secure a home for future refugees—Tong's government bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, and the president there says refugees will be welcome. Kiribati is also the first nation to see a citizen attempt to obtain refugee status on grounds of climate change—and have the plea declined.

Tong has to do what many leaders don't—consider the boldest, most fantastical plans to stay afloat, or consider the implications of going under.

Shimizu floating artificial island blueprints. Image: Shimizu

"We have a strategy, which we have adopted and endorsed as a government," Tong said. It's essentially to do whatever it takes to ensure Kiribati doesn't disappear. "At the moment, we are looking at possible options of doing that, even considering artificial islands—why not?" He's actually been pursuing the idea for years now, so far, to little avail. In 2011, Tong announced a $2 billion proposal his country had crafted with Shimizu, a Japanese corporation known for its high-concept, ambitious engineering projects.

Shimizu's blueprints featured giant, high-tech floating ecosystems; imagine the Waterworld set on steroids. "The last time I saw the models, I was like, 'Wow, it's like science fiction,' almost like something in space," Tong said in a speech at the Pacific Islands Forum that year. "So modern, I don't know if our people could live on it. But what would you do for your grandchildren? If you were faced with the option of being submerged, with your family, would you jump on an oil rig like that? And [I] think the answer is 'yes.' We are running out of options, so we are considering all of them."

Tong has sought assistance from US military engineers, the United Arab Emirates, and the Netherlands for technical solutions. The trouble, he said, is a lack of resources. Kiribati is poor. It is desperately trying to cope with a problem caused by rich nations, which are responsible for the lion's share of historic greenhouse-gas pollution.And while philanthropists and some well-meaning functionaries may have floated some big ideas to help the ailing country, there have been few resources committed to enacting any actual contingency plan.

"Do we have any kind of rights? In the absence of a legally binding agreement, these things are happening without any conversation, without any remedy for those like us who are suffering, without any kind of penalty or regulation," Tong lamented.

He bemoans the fact that there is no comprehensive, legally binding international agreement that prevents or restricts nations and corporations from emitting the prodigious amounts of carbon pollution that is threatening Kiribati's existence. Nations like the US, China, and Australia have been slow to—or downright absent from—the negotiating table, for fear that cutting coal, oil, and gas pollution would hurt their economies.

Kevin VQ Dam

Last year, Tong announced that he was establishing a marine preserve the size of California in his country's waters, and closing the area to fishermen. He framed it as a desperate effort to lead by example: The move, he said, would cost Kiribati millions of dollars in revenue, but was the right thing to do and demonstrated that it was possible for a nation to act against its shortterm interests for the greater good.

The only time Tong, a man who is used to talking about the End, seemed genuinely agitated was when I brought up the US Congress. The one major political party on the planet that denies climate change outright is the Republican Party in the US. Thanks largely to its obstructionism, no meaningful laws have been passed in Congress to reduce carbon emissions, even though the problem has been widely understood since the 90s.

"That makes me extremely sad, that we've gone down that path. We talk about civilized society, we talk about human rights… But we are not practicing it," he said. "The United States is a country that preaches human rights. We're always being asked, 'What's your human rights record?'" (Kiribati has been criticized for its human rights record by international aid groups and the US government, primarily for failing to address discrimination against women and children.) "There we are: That is the biggest infringement of human rights in history. Taking away our future. Our very existence."

Tong and Kiribati are powerless in the face of almost assured calamity, of almost assured cultural genocide. Tong fears for his large family (he has eight children), he said, and for other families as well. "Already it's happening. I've been going round on different islands, and I foresee that many of these are going to have to leave their communities very shortly. Within five years, actually. It's happening with greater frequency."

There's only so much room on a sinking island. Eventually, the people of Kiribati are going to have to migrate. It's yet another way in which Kiribati has become a stand-in for the world's climate woes. "If we don't arrest our emissions," he said, "there's going to be migration more massive than anything the world has ever seen. Because we are not the only ones who will be migrating."

He's probably right again. The most recent science shows that by the end of the century, much of the Middle East will be so hot it will be unbearable to be outdoors for long stretches of the year. Drought is crippling places like Yemen, Brazil, and the American Southwest. Rising sea levels are swamping more populous nations like Bangladesh. Some of these conditions will become so extreme that mass migrations are all but assured; it's just a matter of where, when, and how many people. There's bound to be (more) strife, conflict, and suffering. (Take Gizo, where the descendants of Kiribati refugees live peacefully but do not enjoy the same property rights as Solomon Islanders, as another sliver of portent.)

How we deal with Kiribati may offer a glimpse into how we'll deal with other imperiled nations, other cultures on the brink, down the road. "I've always described climate change as the greatest moral challenge ever faced by humanity," Tong told me. "Are we going to be collateral damage before there's going to be any effective response? That is the question… We regard ourselves as a civilized society. We'll find out if we really are."

Caption for inline image: Saving Kiribati In an effort to stay above sea level, Kiribati's government has announced a $2 billion proposal for a floating ecosystem. Image: Shimizu.