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November 11, 2016

Responding To: The Global Challenge of Climate-Induced Migration

The Global Challenge of Climate-Induced Migration

Anote Tong

Adapted from former president of Kiribati Anote Tong’s remarks at Georgetown University on October 17, 2016.

Weather and climate are without a doubt the most popular ice-breakers between unfamiliar people trying to establish some kind of a connection. And today, climate change has also become the hottest topic of discussion in the international arena. But what do climate change and recent international negotiations on the issue this mean for countries in different parts of the world, especially for those most vulnerable, like Kiribati?

The brutal reality is that, for those of us living on low-lying atoll islands, our future survival as a people and a culture is very much in question. The scenarios projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that, even if the pledges on emissions made in Paris are fully delivered, my homeland will still be underwater well within the century.

Climate change is the greatest moral challenge that has faced humanity at any time in history. We know that our actions are detrimental to the future survival of humanity, and we know that we have the capacity to save that future. So the question is: Are we willing to do something about it? Nature has clearly indicated that it no longer has the resilience to withstand the abuses that we inflict upon it in the name of economic development and our unsustainable lifestyles. We are destroying the very foundation of our existence, believing that we can recreate it through the technologies we have developed. We are living witnesses of the progressive destruction of our homeland.

Our people continue to ask, what can they expect from the global community to ensure their survival as a people? Indeed, what are the options available for vulnerable countries like Tuvalu, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna, and Kiribati? During my term in office, we adopted a strategy that would ensure that Kiribati (or at least parts of it) will remain above sea level into the future. Concepts such as floating islands may no longer be mere concepts, but very real technical solutions to our dilemma. It is my very strong conviction that in these trying times, extraordinary and unconventional solutions are needed.

However, whatever measures we take to remain above the rising seas, they will not be adequate to continue to accommodate the current level of our population on the island of Kiribati. Therefore, relocation, however reluctant we may be to do that, must be part of our strategy for adaptation. I strongly believe that if our people should need to find a new home, they must be able to do so as people with dignity and confidence in their new environment: migration with dignity.

The options are not easy, particularly when faced with the very real possibility of a nation—a home—that may no longer be able to support life within the very near future. Therefore, it is crucial to make sacrifices today to ensure a safe and secure future for our children, our grandchildren, and their children. So, as of January 1, 2015, Kiribati closed off approximately 11 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone from all forms of commercial fishing activities. The closure of this Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA) was not without its challenges, particularly for a nation that is reliant on the revenues from fishing access to our oceans. However it was one that we as a government believed was critical for the conservation of a major food source, not only for our people, but for the world as a whole. PIPA signals to the world that sacrifices are necessary and can indeed be made to ensure the continued health of our oceans and planet for the common good.

I have also called for a moratorium on both opening new coal mines and extending existing coal mines. Science, as confirmed by the IPCC report, dictates that for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change, we must leave the vast bulk of carbon reserves in the ground. Very simply, the world needs to burn less coal each year. I believe that this call is also the acid test of how genuine our commitment is to the pledges we made in signing the Paris Agreement.

Time is running out for those of us at the front lines of climate change—for those of us most vulnerable to its impacts. As responsible global citizens of this planet, it is our moral obligation to ensure its preservation. For the sake of humanity, we must move forward together, leaving no one behind.

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