Climate Justice

By Mary Robinson​
Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

As president of Ireland, I had the privilege of meeting with hundreds of thousands of Irish at home and abroad, and visiting thousands of community groups and organisations across the country. But I never had to return home from an international conference and tell the people of Ireland that our land might soon become uninhabitable because of the onslaught of climate change.

That’s what happened to Anote Tong, former president of the Republic of Kiribati, when he returned to his Pacific island nation following the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009. He had to tell his people that Kiribati was in peril of being engulfed by the sea. Kiribati – pronounced keer-i- bas in the local language – is made up of thirty-three coral atolls and reef islands, located on the equator about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Scattered across an ocean area the size of Alaska, Kiribati’s many islands, home to slightly more than one hundred thousand people, reach at most barely six and a half feet above sea level. The latest climate models predict that melting polar ice and thermal expansion of warming seawater may cause the world’s oceans to rise by two to four feet by 2100.

Nearly twenty years ago, because of its position on the international date line, Kiribati was the first country in the world to welcome in the new millennium. Now, in a tragic twist of fate, it may become the first one lost to the effects of climate change before the dawn of the next century.

In response to this threat, in 2014, Tong purchased about six thousand acres of forested land on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu, one thousand miles away. Five years earlier, the Pacific nation of the Maldives – also threatened by rising sea levels – became the first country to consider moving its sovereign state when the Maldives government looked to India and Sri Lanka for potential land. Tong’s decision to spend $8 million on the Fiji land came in the wake of the fifth assessment report of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which confirmed – in the starkest tones yet – that small islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans risked total annihilation.

“The message was loud and clear: Whether you believe it or not, whether you are going to do anything about it or not, our fate is sealed,” said Tong. “At some point within this century, the water will be higher than the highest point in our lands.”

In 2013, a World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat, laid out in shocking detail the ravages that Kiribati’s residents – who as their coastal villages become uninhabitable have no options to retreat inland because they have no high ground – should expect in the coming decades. “What is the future for us? The reality is that we won’t have a home,” Anote Tong said. “The IPCC projection is for the global sea level to rise by about a meter by the end of the century. I know exactly what that means for us. It won’t be by the century. It will be well before that.” Kiribati’s socioeconomic trends – high population growth rates and migration to the capital from outer islands – have exacerbated the atoll’s vulnerability, while poverty, overcrowding, and poor sanitation have begun to deplete the island’s already-limited water resources. Add climate change into the mix, and with significant sea level rise, Kiribati’s freshwater supply will be even more imperilled. With alarming changes in weather patterns, flooding has in recent years become the norm.

“As a child, I used to visit a remote village island some distance from my home,” Tong told me. “But later, during my lifetime, the village began to disappear. Several years ago, the water rushed in and now the village is no longer there.” All that remains of the village is an old church that juts out of the Pacific waters like the tip of a modern-day Atlantis. In recent years, Tong asked villagers to build a seawall to protect what remains of the church, a stark visual reminder to the former leader of his race against time.

Tong is a slim man of Chinese and Kiribati heritage, with a trim moustache and grey crew cut. Born on one of the outer-lying islands of Kiribati, south of the tiny capital island of South Tarawa, Tong escaped the extreme poverty of his childhood when he was sent to New Zealand at the age of six to attend a Catholic boarding school. Educated by Irish nuns, Tong remained in New Zealand for the rest of his childhood, eventually graduating from Auckland University with a degree in chemistry. After some time spent working for the Kiribati foreign service in Fiji, Tong returned to Kiribati in the 1970s. In 2003, following a contentious political fight against his older brother, Harry, and with a margin of just one thousand votes, Tong was elected president.

An accomplished fisherman who knows intimately the contours of many of Kiribati’s sandy atolls, Tong noticed decades ago that something was amiss with the weather. He began to research assiduously the science behind climate change, taking into consideration both sides of the debate. “Like a lot of people around the world, the ongoing controversy about the science threw confusion into the argument,” he remembers. “We heard what was being predicted but still hoped that there was a chance.” But in 2007, everything changed when, four years into his presidency, Tong read IPCC’s fourth assessment report. “After that, I really began to panic,” Tong told me. “I started to read more detail and began to analyse what it meant, not in terms of the science, but for the people of Kiribati. I became very frightened.” Immediately, Tong set about drawing up contingency plans for his nation’s demise. But concerned by how the news might be perceived among his people, for the time being he said nothing.

In December 2009, the United Nation’s annual climate change summit in Copenhagen was highly charged, marred by scenes of chaos and recrimination in the closing stages. Although Copenhagen produced the first joint commitments on emissions by major developed economies, these cuts fell far short of what Tong and leaders of other vulnerable countries had been holding out for in hopes of keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5.C in this century. In the dramatic last minutes, all references to 1.5.C in the draft deal – brokered between China, South Africa, India, Brazil, and the United States – were removed, blindsiding Tong and those from other small and more vulnerable nations. The message was clear: In the global fight to reduce greenhouse emissions, Kiribati and other Pacific nations would become collateral damage. It was a slap in the face to Tong. His presidential colleagues on the world stage – the leaders of developed countries that had built their economies on fossil fuels – had signed Kiribati’s death warrant.

It was painful to witness a group containing the leaders of a number of smaller nations literally shut out from the negotiations and standing in the December snow while the major world powers argued late into the night. I began to understand that the fight for climate justice had to be centred not just around the individual, but at the state level too – that the concept of climate justice must be broadened to ensure that smaller states are given a voice and a place at the negotiating table.

For Tong, the UN climate summit meeting at Copenhagen was a watershed moment. He returned to Kiribati alternately dejected and furious, knowing that if he was to save his country, he needed to act alone. “I was very angry,” he remembers. “I now understand that people can become extremists when they are not being heard. After Copenhagen, I had a deep sense of betrayal and a sense of futility. But I knew that I had to keep thinking that there was something more that we could do. If not, then I did not deserve leadership.” For weeks, Tong could not shake an image in his head, that of the Kiribati people floundering in the water and struggling to board a life raft captained by developed nations. At Copenhagen, Tong had felt patronised by the leaders of some developed nations who had lectured him on the danger to their economies of an agreement containing anything less than 2.C. The rebuke stung. “I told them that anything above one and a half degrees centigrade was dangerous to our future as a people. When the time comes, I am haunted that the people of Kiribati will be pushed away as they try to scramble onto the life raft.”

In the weeks following Copenhagen, while Tong drew up plans for his country’s demise, he tried to grapple with a profound sense of failure and helplessness. “Then I had to step forward and say we have to find a solution. I had to acknowledge, to come to terms with, the reality of what was happening.” Next, Tong tried to understand how to broach the topic to a sceptical audience not only at home, but also abroad. “I had to change how I was talking about the issue. You don’t listen to somebody who accuses you of doing the wrong thing. I had to make other countries realise that it’s not just my problem. That it’s their problem too, whether they like it or not. But even then, it still took a long time to be heard.”

In the wake of Copenhagen, Tong’s story would catapult Kiribati into the international media spotlight. But the attention would bring him criticism back home from local opposition and Christian leaders, and some residents, who saw their fate as resting only in God’s hands. Some international scientists also disagreed with Tong’s pronouncements about erosion and flooding, suggesting that he was prone to overstating the role that sea level rise has played so far. But each year the pull of the moon brings new king tides to Kiribati, and the seawater contaminates drinking water, ruins crops, and causes food shortages. Tong recognises that the more he talks about climate change and what the future holds for the young people of Kiribati, the more that people will want to leave the islands. To enable the future of these young people, he has created training programs in a variety of skills, including nursing and carpentry, to give the youth of Kiribati an economic lifeline for when the islands become uninhabitable. “Migration with dignity is a real strategy,” he said. “I think what is new about this concept is its application to climate-induced migration. I want migration from our country to be a painless process, even a happy process, for those who choose to go. They will go on merit. We will prepare them.”

In 2016, after three terms as president and no longer eligible for reelection, Tong stepped down from office. He was anxious about relinquishing his post as president, knowing, he says, that in spite of the new Kiribati government’s support for measures to combat climate change, it was not at the top of their priority list. “That is why I must keep talking with them. We can never give up. We can’t afford to give up. No matter what the obstacles seem to be. For us there is no giving up.”

Tong has now engaged with Japanese, Korean, and United Arab Emirates engineering firms who are leading the race to create giant floating islands. He has yet to work out the daunting financial and logistical details, but hopes that artificial floating islands may offer a lifeline for Kiribati, if not for this generation then for the next.

When people are drowning, Tong believes, they will grasp at anything to stay afloat. That is why he will devote the rest of his life to the Sisyphean task of saving the Kiribati nation.

“I’d rather plan for the worst, and hope for the best,” he observes.


This extract is from Climate Justice by Mary Robinson (Bloomsbury; $29.99).
Use the offer code CLIMATEJUSTICE30 for a 30% discount on the book.

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