Anote Tong wants to build a sea wall around a church.
It’s the only thing remaining in a Kiribatian village: the rest has been washed away by the rising sea.
“There is a village where the people are all gone, because there is no village.”
The President of the Republic of Kiribati says the church needs a sea wall to protect it, so he can take visitors to show them, “this was a village”.
“At high tide, that building sits in the middle of the sea with nothing around it.”
It is one of the realities for those who live in low-lying Pacific nations: climate change isn’t something they will have to wait until the end of the century to see the effects of – they see it now.
President Tong spoke this morning at the Pacific Climate Change conference at Victoria University. He said not everyone understood the realities of living in the Pacific, with some suggesting his citizens simply needed to retreat further from the coast.
“If we move back far enough we fall off on the other side.”
“They’ve never been to our places and they don’t know what they’re talking about. The reality that we face that we have become accustomed to”
“You’ve got to be there to truly understand what it feels like. When there is a tsunami warning and you look around for the highest place to run to, and the highest place is a coconut tree.”
“This is what we are confronted with.”
President Tong said climate change was not something that would happen to Pacific Island countries at the end of the century, but was happening now.
“I can guarantee you, we won’t have to wait til the end of the century.”
When Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu last year, Kiribati was also hit. It was the first time a cyclone had affected the country, with the region normally being the manufacturer of cyclones and hurricanes not the recipient.
It left residents wondering when the next cyclone would come and how much more severe would it be, he said.
Though he has been talking about climate change for a long time, President Tong said initially he tried not to overwhelm his citizens with too much information, rationalising that it wouldn’t do to scare people about things they didn’t know about and couldn’t do anything to prevent.
“But now that is no longer the case, our people have seen evidence.”
President Tong has been hailed for his leadership on climate change and the need for Pacific Islands to lead their own adaptation and mitigation.
“For me, climate change has taken pretty much most of my time as president.”
“My first address to the United Nations was about climate change, I’ve been telling the story ever since.”
“Its been a long journey, I can tell you.”
Next month he will step down as president, “I have run out of terms,” he says.
But he’s clear on what he wants for his fellow Kiribatians. The country has purchased land in Fiji, to provide an option for relocation should the need occur. He has been talking to the Dutch about how to adapt the Republic’s 33 islands for rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.
Projections lead him to suspect “we will not have a home in 20 to 3o years’ time”. He’s been called a defeatist by opponents, but he says he’s just being realistic.
“You don’t play chances with the lives and the futures of your people.”
He rejects that his people might become climate refugees, instead, he wants his people to have a chance to “migrate with dignity”.
“We continue to aspire to a good life.”
“Sometimes I lose my hope and I think people don’t care. But there is a great deal of compassion and humanity in people.”
He called on world leaders to come through on the agreement made in Paris at COP21 in December.
“There is always a tendency to feel a sense of achievement…but not actually follow up on things.”
Politicians could get trapped into the four-year political cycle, but being elected wasn’t what politics was about, he said.
“It’s about doing the right thing while you’re in office.”
The Pacific Climate Change conference runs until Wednesday. The Science Media Centre will be running an online briefing on February 17 at 12.30pm.
Featured image: Flickr CC, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.