Kiribati – Climate change and inequity

Every day we see the effects of climate change on our environment, whether it is the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy in the northeast United States, or massive wildfires and record-breaking heat in Australia.  

More recently, world leaders have begun to focus on the link between severe weather and climate change, and this has led to significant public discussion about our vulnerabilities to climate change and the steps we can take to adapt.

But it is not just exposure to climate change-related phenomena (such as floods, storms, and rising sea levels) that makes a country vulnerable to harm. Rather, it is the inability of its people and government to prepare for a disaster, or effectively respond once it hits, that determines overall vulnerability.

Thus, as I discussed in a blog post last June, the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world are also the poorest – among them, the Pacific Island nations. These communities often don’t have sufficient resources or the capacity to adapt or respond to climate change. Ironically, while they will be hit hardest by climate change, they are also the lowest carbon emitters.

The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced keer-ah-bhass) is a key example. Kiribati is a nation of roughly 103,000 people spread across 23 islands in Micronesia. On average, these islands are only two or three meters (3.2 to 6.6 feet) above sea level, and they are often less than 800 meters (874 yards) across at the widest point. The country’s economy depends on subsistence farming, fishing, and the export of coconut meat – all of which are sensitive to environmental changes. Kiribati also has one of the highest poverty rates in the Pacific.

In 2009, Kiribati was responsible for 0.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita compared to 17.3 metric tons per capita by the United States. But greenhouse gas emissions are having an outsize effect on the lives of I-Kiribati (as the citizens of Kiribati are called). Rising sea levels have led to the contamination of natural water sources and reduced habitable and arable land. This has directly impacted the ability of residents to earn a livelihood, causing whole communities to relocate – mostly from outlying islands to South Tawara, the nation’s capital.

South Tarawa, which now has a population density higher than Tokyo, is trying to grapple with the challenges and risks associated with such high population density, like the spread of infectious diseases and the further stress on Kiribati’s already limited resources.

However, rising sea levels are not Kiribati’s only environmental issue. In recent years, more frequent storms have eroded crops and degraded Kiribati’s coastal defenses, including its sea walls. Lengthy periods of drought have also decimated Kiribati’s limited supplies of fresh water.

And the future doesn’t look any brighter. If greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, it is expected that the world will warm by a further a 4 degrees Celsius by 2060. If this occurs, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research estimates that global sea levels will rise by an average of 0.5 to 1 meter (1.6 to 3.25 feet).

Kiribati President Anote Tong has long campaigned for world leaders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide aid and compensation to those areas of the world which are most affected by climate change. Since he assumed office in 2003, he has been a vocal delegate at numerous conferences on climate change. For example, at the UN climate change conference in Doha last year he spoke about the insidious effects of climate change on his nation.

Unfortunately, his pleas for action have not been heeded, and he has become openly frustrated at the inability of major. But he won’t be deterred. In February this year, President Tong and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr stood amongst the remains of a Kiribati village, left uninhabitable by rising sea levels, and recorded a joint statement directed at the UN Security Council. In their statement, President Tong and Senator Carr called on world leaders to actively combat climate change in order to reduce the risk of future conflicts over scarce resources. Their appeals should not be ignored any longer. 

Davina Wadley is a former fellow with the Refugees International climate displacement program.