As sea levels continue to creep higher, it’s becoming more likely that the island nation of Kiribati may soon disappear because of global warming.
Home to over 100,000 residents who are spread over 32 low lying atolls, Kiribati may be the site of the first major climate-induced migration, despite having contributed very little to global carbon emissions.
In recognition of Kiribati’s predicament, Fiji’s President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau made a statement of solidarity with the neighboring nation at a state dinner in Tarawa. Mr. Nailatiku’s remarks, which often verged on the poetic, stressed the historically good relations between the two countries and extended a guarantee to the residents of Kiribati:
In a worst case scenario and if all else fails, you will not be refugees. You will be able to migrate with dignity. The spirit of the people of Kiribati will not be extinguished. It will live on somewhere else because a nation isn’t only a physical place. A nation—and the sense of belonging that comes with it—exists in the hearts and minds of its citizens wherever they may be.
If the sea level continues to rise because the international community won’t tackle global warming, some or all of the people of Kiribati may have to come and live in Fiji. Fiji will not turn its back on our neighbors in their hour of need.
Inhabitants of Kiribati have been long aware that the slow creep of global warming might obliterate their way of life. Last year, an immigrant from Kiribati ignited a controversy in New Zealand by claiming that rising sea levels make him a ‘climate refugee.’ His case is expected to set a legal precedent that will dictate future climate-induced migration.
In 2012, Anote Tong, Kiribati’s president began negotiations with Fiji to purchase up to 5,000 acres of land, a plan which Mr. Tong called “the last resort.”
In light of President Nailatiku’s remarks, it seems as if stranded I-Kiribati will have somewhere to go if runaway climate change is not stopped. However, even the comparatively high-elevation Fiji may not be completely safe.
Only one month ago Fiji relocated its first village because of coastline erosion and seawater flooding. The village, Vunidogoloa, was moved about one kilometer inland. Similar plans are being discussed fro the village of Narikoso.
At the dinner in Tarawa, President Nailatikau also emphasized the need for international action on climate change:
We are especially keen to lead and assist our joint effort to persuade the rest of the world to finally take decisive action on climate change. It is simply not acceptable for the world to stand by and watch the Republic of Kiribati—a sovereign nation and member of the United Nations —sink slowly beneath the waves.
Several upcoming international conferences, including COP20 in Lima, the Ban Ki Moon Summit in New York City, and COP21 in Paris are expected to provide a venue for Pacific Island nations to push further for legally binding action on climate change.