MELTING TROPICS –KIRIBATI AND THE MARSHALL ISLANDS ON THE FRONT LINE OF GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
—KIRIBATI AND THE MARSHALL ISLANDS ON THE FRONT LINE OF GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
“Climate change isn’t an environmental issue, nor is it a question of economic growth.
It’s about survival for humanity as a whole.”
In January 2014, I traveled to coral atolls in the heart of the Pacific Ocean to better understand a pressing environmental concern. People in the Republic of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands must contend with the threat that their land might soon be submerged due to rising sea levels, which would force these island nations to evacuate their entire population by 2030.
This grave ecological crisis stands in stark contrast to the I-Kiribati people’s undisturbed way of life and idyllic landscapes. In a cruel twist of fate, these far-flung countries with quasi-undetectable ecological footprints have become the first victims of climate change.
This expedition radically transformed my outlook on environmental issues. I met with Mr. Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, who likens the market economy’s exploitation of natural resources to an insidious form of eco-terrorism. He sees climate change as a serious threat to national security that will irrevocably wipe his country off the map.
While some still raise doubts about the role human activity played in tragedies such as the Philippines’ devastating typhoon or Pakistan’s monster floods a few years ago, the correlation between rising sea levels and melting ice has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt.
“At a United Nations Security Council meeting I attended, everyone was discussing the problems of terrorism. I then took to the floor, saying that while we all agreed that terrorism is a complex and difficult situation, my country’s citizens are all currently victims of eco-terrorism. I then asked why we weren’t getting more attention.”
—Anote Tong, January 24th, 2014
For now, the Republic of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands—which count only around 167,000 people—are standing on the front lines of global climate change. But what about the future of other major coastal cities around the world?
New York, Mumbai, Tokyo or even Shanghai could be the next affected metropolises among the planet’s 136 major coastal cities, which account for tens of millions of people. While Anote Tong and his government are hard at work securing land in Fiji to ensure a safe relocation of the I-Kiribati, the ties that bind a people to its land can’t so easily be packed up and shipped off.
“Sinking island states” present one of the most dramatic scenarios of the impact of climate change. There is no precedent for the loss of an entire territory or the exile of an entire population.
The first cases of climate change refugees are being brought before international tribunals. Unlike those who’ve been displaced due to war or famine, climate change refugees will clearly never be afforded the chance to return to their homeland.
65.6 million people forced to flee around the world because of conflict and persecution, these are the 2016 figures released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But if nothing drastically changes in mankind’s relation with the planet, the 22nd century might be remembered for introducing the disheartening notion of climate change refugees with no hope of return.