Desperate call from a sinking nation: President of Kiribati tells world leaders to leave the politics at home for Paris climate conference

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 1:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 2:47pm

The president of Kiribati, whose sprawling Pacific Ocean island nation is being consumed by rising sea levels, has urged world leaders to leave their domestic politics at home and commit resources to help the most vulnerable countries tackle the challenges of climate change when they meet in Paris next week.

President Anote Tong told the South China Morning Post that his country could be uninhabitable within the next 50 years were global warming to continue unabated. Some communities on Kiribati’s 33 atolls and reef islands had already relocated to higher ground due to encroaching sea water.

“Every year our parliament raises the problems of diminishing drinking water and crop failures ... Such events are taking place faster than anyone anticipated,” he said.

The 195-nation UN climate group had previously adopted a goal of limiting the increase in average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is the threshold to avoid catastrophic consequences.

READ MORE: Ready to bail: Kiribati struggles to keep its population afloat

But a coalition of nations most at risk – including the Philippines, Kiribati, the Maldives and Bangladesh – appealed on November 11 for a new target to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.

Calling climate change “a moral challenge” for the global community, Tong said leaders should stop bringing politics to the negotiating table, as people who were most vulnerable to climate change were already facing threats to their survival.

“Australia and New Zealand are saying further emission cuts will hurt their economy. I can understand what they’re saying, but we’re talking about our future survival,” Tong said.

“The problem is they don’t keep their emissions at home, they send it our way.”

Long before we go under water, our people will already be suffering
President Anote Tong

Countries had no “sovereignty rights” over their emissions as the impact was global and climate change did not respect borders, he said.

The Green Climate Fund – promised by rich countries to help developing nations cut emissions and cope with climate change – was “very difficult to access” and Kiribati did not have the resources to build sea walls and other infrastructure to make its population stay, The Kiribati president said.

READ MORE: A climate for change: how China went from zero to hero in fight against global warming in just 6 years

As part of a campaign to migrate Kiribati’s entire population of about 100,000, Tong not only bought some 2,000 hectares of land from Fiji, but was also in talks with several Pacific nations including Australia, New Zealand, Japan and East Timor.

“[The refugee crisis] in Europe is a clear indication of what is to come,” Tong said.

Tong’s comments shed light on the urgency of tackling climate change and the complexity of the negotiations in Paris to agree on a new global treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020.

While mostly poor countries like Kiribati struggle to survive, many others place their priority on development, clinging to short-term economic benefits from burning fossil fuels and cutting down rainforests, which are vital to absorbing the world’s carbon emissions.

Rich and poor nations are also divided on funding issues.

“I can’t sign anything [in Paris] that leaves my people behind,” Tong said.

“Long before we go under water, our people will already be suffering.”