Addresing the 70th United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015, President of Kiribati, Anote Tong said his country’s citizens won’t be able to remain on the physical islands of Kiribati much longer without drastic change on global warming. No matter what happens at COP 21 in Paris, his country won’t look the same in 50 years, and he - and the world - must take action now.
Around the world, sea levels have risen 3 inches since the early 1990s due to ice melt caused by global warming. Even if countries are able to reduce emissions as much as policymakers have promised, global sea levels will still rise by one to two feet by 2100. Without carbon cuts, that rise could top three feet. In Kiribati, where land is rarely more than few feet above sea level, even a moderate rise could be catastrophic. And the island nation is also at risk from an expected increase in the number of extreme weather events, such as storms and typhoons.
President Tong told the UNGA he wants to fortify at least one island in the Kiribati chain so the country’s physical presence doesn’t disappear in its entirety, and he has met with representatives of the Netherlands and other flood-prone regions about how to best protect the islands. Even if some of the country can be saved from the rising seas, Kiribati will not be able to accommodate all of the country’s residents. For those forced to leave, there must be “migration with dignity." Kiribati has purchased 5,000 acres of land in nearby Fiji as insurance policy and world leaders have indicated that they would be willing to support Kiribati refugees if it becomes necessary.
Catastrophic one-off events like hurricanes and tsunamis tend to prompt international sympathy. Kiribati has benefited from some support, but development commitments have measured in the millions, far from the hundreds of millions, if not billions Tong says his country needs to fully adapt to climate change.