Author: Jennifer Helgeson

© Greenpeace / Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Betio village, Kiribati. 10 February 2005. ©Greenpeace / Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

The Kiribati delegation made a powerful public presentation of the extreme risks faces by their atoll nation in the near future by climate change effects.  Climatico analyst Jennifer Helgeson had the opportunity to have a discussion with Kiribati’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Tessie Eria Lambourne, as well as legal Solicitor-General, David Lambourne.

The presentation preceding this conversation combined scientific discussions alongside cultural themes and socio-economic projections to put what Mr. Lambourne notes as a “human face” on climate change.  This human face includes issues such as quickly disappearing corals, loss of infrastructure, lack of potable drinking water, and extensive health issues.

Sea level rise is so serious for this nation that it is described as “inundation risk” by the risk management specialists brought in by the Kiribati government to assess the nation’s environmental situation.  These specialists have described two options for changes to Kiribati in the coming century:  1) Temporary inundation; or 2) Permanent inundation, with many changes already triggered and slowly evolving.  In the most modest model proposals (following IPCC projections), there is major coastal loss to the nation by 2030 and by 2050 there is a proliferation of swampy area throughout the mid-lands of the country. Finally, by 2100, there will be major permanent inundation of areas throughout the islands.

Such a situation would necessitate major evacuation of Kiribati’s citizens to other nations.  But, Ms. Lambourne makes it clear that if evacuation and relocation becomes realistic, the people of Kiribati will not go as environmental refugees: “We are a proud people.  We want to offer skilled individuals to other nations; we have no interest in our people living off of welfare.”  In this spirit, the government is committed to merit-based relocations (e.g. agreements to train Kiribati women as nurses in order to fill employment gaps in developed countries).  The programs already in development with Australia and New Zealand ensure long-term Kiribati communities in those nations.  Mr. Lambourne explains that historically other Pacific Island nations have had migration due to socio-economic factors.  So, they have seed communities of their indigenous people in places like New Zealand and Australia.  We need to develop those kinds of seed communities to absorb Kiribati people if climate change forces it to be so.”

When asked why he and his wife are so knowledgeable on climate change, Mr. Lambourne states that all the heads of state know about climate change because it is pervasive in all issues faced by Kiribati.  Kiribati has ordered village by village risk assessments and the reported outlook is grim.  The only airway to the country is likely to be totally inundated by 2030.  There is a key data gap in how coral will react over time; the excellent records kept since the 1990s does not allow for accurate projections.  The most densely populated island of the atoll is Tarawa (45,000 people) and poverty as well as health issues will only be exacerbated by climate change.   The one fresh water lens for the community’s drinking water has also begun to see minor salination.  Ms. Lambourne shakes her head and asks rhetorically: “do you know how expensive it is to maintain a desalinization plant?”

Kiribati is asking the world for help, but at the same time, Ms. Lambourne is quick to point out that they are taking hold of their own fate.  The Clean Development Mechanism hasn’t really made it into Kiribati because of the costs involved in setting-up the process.  “Who would do a single project in Kiribati when economies of scale let them do thousands cheaply in China?” asks Mr. Lambourne.  “We don’t have the technology to promise specific targets but we are working hard to get towards the use of more sustainable fuel types and seriously reducing the atoll’s carbon footprint.”

Kiribati is tackling the hard issues.  Mr. Lambourne admits that “relocation at all is not a comfortable topic, but we have to be realistic.”  He looks at me and jokes that, after all, our President is an economist; he is practical.”  Asked about how other Pacific Island nations feel about the merit-based migration program Kiribati is striving towards, the answer is that not all nations think it is the best way.  “Of course, it takes work on our part and on the part of our people.  But we are part of the AOSIS [Association of Small Island States], and we agree with the common message.  Each nation might choose to get there differently, but we agree.”

Complemented on the lovely Kiribati bird song shared during the initial presentation, Ms. Lambourne smiles and says that “the frigate bird is a prime example of national identity; that is why it is so hard to think about moving our people; the spiritual connection to the land is so intense.  The suggestion guides to adaptation all say that the easiest thing for individuals’ to do is to move away from coastal areas, but what happens when your entire nation is a coastal area?”

For more on Kiribati’s climate change plan for adaptation and potential evacuation, see:

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