The village where Anote Tong attended school some 40 years ago is no longer there. As the Pacific Ocean encroached on the settlement, the villagers left for higher ground.
“There is a church building and a meeting house, but nobody can go there because during high tide they’re sitting out in the middle of the water,” said Tong, now president of the atoll nation of Kiribati.
Nowhere are the risks of climate change more evident than in the tiny island nations of the Pacific, where countless communities face inundation. Tuvalu has lost four islands since 2000. Islets have slipped beneath the waves in the Marshall Islands and Papua New Guinea. And in Palau, some houses — still occupied — flood daily.
The islanders’ plight gives them a powerful moral voice at a December meeting in Paris sponsored by the United Nations, where more than 190 countries will work toward a new agreement to fight global warming. And Tong will join the leaders of the Maldives, Palau, the Seychelles and other Pacific nations at the UN General Assembly starting Sept. 28 in New York to advocate for more urgent action in the runup to the Paris summit.
The islands are demanding a tightening of the international goal to rein in warming. In 2010, UN envoys agreed on a goal to cap the increase since the 19th century to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Leaders of the island nations want a limit of 1.5 degrees, and that their countries deserve compensation for the suffering they’re likely to face even at that level.
“There should be a funding mechanism available for damages that are irrecoverable, maybe in the form of insurance,” said Ibrahim Thoriq, environment minister for the Maldives, a string of more than 1,000 islands in the Indian Ocean known for palm-lined white sand beaches.
Christiana Figueres, the UN official overseeing the Paris talks, has said it’s unlikely participants will agree to measures ambitious enough to meet the 2-degree goal, let alone the more stringent target sought by the islanders. Her predecessor, Yvo de Boer, who now advises developing nations on climate change as head of the Global Green Growth Institute in Seoul, backs her.
“Paris is not going to keep your feet dry, or your desert wet, or your lake filled,” said de Boer. Moreover, he said, the draft agreement is “staggeringly empty in terms of strong proposals to meet the financial needs of developing countries.”
Sea levels have risen 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) since 1901, and NASA scientists say an increase of at least 1 meter (39 inches) is probably “unavoidable” as warmer temperatures expand ocean water and ice sheets melt. With thousands of islands worldwide topping out at little more than two or three meters above sea level, countless homes and livelihoods are under threat.
“Atoll islands are, by their very nature, vulnerable,” said John Hunter, an oceanographer who has authored more than 20 papers on rising sea levels. “Take a dining tray, make a little pile of sand in the middle, add some water – and swish it about a bit — that’s an atoll island.”
Across the ages, waves, currents, volcanic activity and subsidence have hoisted islands from the sea and then inundated them again. But greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels has increased the pace of change. In the 21st century, sea levels have increased at almost double the rate seen in the 1900s — which was already far faster than the average of the previous 2,000 years, according to the UN’s most recent assessment of global warming.
“If you look historically at the pace of rises and falls, they occur over hundreds of years and not five or seven or 10 years,” said Kevin Conrad, a climate negotiator for Papua New Guinea. “What we’re finding are hugely dramatic changes that no one has seen.”
Conrad, 47, recalls how he used to row a canoe to an island off Papua New Guinea’s north coast and take pot shots with a slingshot at fruit bats in the casuarina trees. Forty years later, water has swept the sand from under the roots, the trees are dead, and the bats are gone.
“The sea level rise is insidious, it’s killing anything except scrub brush,” said Conrad. “It just eats away at the lifestyle.”
More than 1,000 miles to the northeast, in the Marshall Islands, skeletons have been washed up from graves and it’s harder to grow crops as brackish water has penetrated the soil. An island owned by Amatlain Kabua’s family disappeared while she was abroad on successive postings in the country’s diplomatic missions. Each time she returned home, the island, which once harbored nesting seabirds and fruit trees, got smaller and smaller.
“It took a while for it to finally disappear,” said Kabua, the country’s ambassador to the UN. “It’s not even exposed at low tide now. It’s really under the sea.”
In Palau, a mixture of atolls and volcanic islands north of Papua, homes in Sechemus and Butilei flood regularly at high tide. A decade ago, they were 5 meters from the sea, says Olai Uludong, the country’s ambassador on climate change.
Palau and Kiribati, outside the usual cyclone belt, have been hit by typhoons in recent years. Islanders fret such storms will become more frequent as warming temperatures alter weather patterns. In 2012, Typhoon Bopha split one of Palau’s uninhabited islands in half.
Since being elected president of Kiribati in 2003, Tong has made frequent appeals to bigger countries to cut back emissions. Only when people see the consequences do they truly understand the gravity, he said, recalling a visit to Kiribati in 2011 by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“He said, ‘Mr. President, for the first time I truly understand what you’ve been saying at the General Assembly, and I feel your problem,”‘ said Tong.
Tong says he’s “brutally realistic” about the future of his country, which may have to focus on defending a few islands from the sea while letting others be swamped, so that Kiribati “will remain on the map.” He’s bought 6,000 acres in Fiji to provide food for his people, and says ultimately some citizens will have to relocate there or elsewhere.
“The final outcome for us is pretty much a foregone conclusion,” said Tong. “So what’s the point in going to Paris? We must continue to make the point that if the international community doesn’t do anything, not only will we be in trouble, but others will follow.”
–With assistance from Sangwon Yoon in New York.
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