If you’ve not heard of the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati (pronounced KIRR-i-bas), odds are you’re not familiar with Tuvalu, the Maldives or the Marshall Islands either. These are the first nations expected to be lost—as early as mid-century—to sea-level rise linked to fossil fuel–fired climate change. In 2008,under the leadership of President Anote Tong, Kiribati made a grand gift to the world:it declared 150,000 square miles of its Phoenix Islands marine area a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses. This ocean wilderness is the size of California and has been designated a UN World Heritage Site. It has been described asone of the most pristine parts of our blue planet, with rich biodiversity including an abundance of healthy corals, big sharks, groupers, tuna, giant clams and other critters that have been depleted in much of the rest of the world.

President Anote Tong is a slim, handsome man of mixed Chinese/Gilbertese ancestry with bright brown eyes, silver hair and a trim mustache. He was elected president in 2003 in a tight race against his older brother. He was re-elected in 2007 with a solid majority and has emerged as a global leader for both ocean conservation and a more rigorous response to global warming. I interviewed him at a California and World Oceans meeting in San Francisco in early September where he was the keynote speaker. We met on the seventh floor of the Hyatt Regency where, as a visiting head of state, he was being guarded by a security detail from the US Secret Service.

David Helvarg: What motivated Kiribati to set aside the largest marine reserve in history?

President Anote Tong: Earlier at the United Nations I was bitter at the international community for not listening [on climate change]. But then it became clear that if we made a contribution this large, it was also a statement on our part. So, this was a significant contribution to the world community in the hope they would also act.

Kiribati was the first nation to greet the new millennium [because of its location on the international dateline], but it may not be around to greet the next century, because of rising sea levels.

This is exactly right, and this is the challenge for the global community to act. I went to [the 2009 global climate negotiations in] Copenhagen and I was extremely disappointed. There was not what we’d have liked to see there. Where will our people go [if our land is submerged]? No one has come forward with an offer [for relocating Kiribati’s population]. We would take what’s available. The former president of Zambia told me "we have plenty of room," and we could move there, but he’s since died. New Zealand allows 75 [Kiribati] people in its [annual] quota. A scenario like that is doable, but it would have to be greatly expanded.

Are you getting a response from Australia or the US?

I find people are more compassionate than governments. We keep asking the international community to act and to give more focus to our part of the world because you’ve done this to us and what are you going to do about it? I’ve been waiting for an answer quite some time and we are running out of time.

I’m calling a meeting in November in Kiribas, inviting large countries—the big polluters—and have them meet with the victims, the most vulnerable states: ours and the Marshall Islands and the Maldives. The November meeting will highlight the whole issue at very high tides. Our nation’s average elevation is 2 meters.

Do you have agreement on this issue at home? Does the opposition support you?

At one time the churches opposed me, saying, "God created the world and God created the scientists and he will determine what happens." But that has since been resolved. We had one church leader who said the Bible was clear that there was only one flood. But then a junior minister pointed out that Noah’s flood was rain, and this [coming inundation] was not going to be rain but the seas rising up. In Parliament I told the tale of the woman in New Orleans after Katrina who rejected people’s help three times because she said God would save her. When she then drowned and went to heaven and asked why he’d let her die, God pointed out he’d sent her help three times.

So most people are now aware of the threat and prepared to move?

At first I didn’t want to agitate the public about something they could not affect, but now we have to prepare the public. Not to be refugees—because that’s a world we don’t like—but for relocation with dignity. Our status is not at our initiation and our churches are now involved [in preparing people for the future]. All of our islands are now involved looking at possible options.

We have examples as recently as last week in Parliament of requests for sea walls to be constructed and we’ve been doing surveys. In one village it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and for another island with one village, the cost is closer to two million. We don’t have the money. But still we try to attend to the most urgent issues, and the people all say, "’But we are in an urgent situation." You have the erosion and flooding at high tides and [saltwater] intrusion into food crops, but we don’t have the money to respond.

Will you still have rights as a nation after the nation has been submerged?

These are new emerging questions. What legally happens to our nation? Can we maintain our rights to our Economic Exclusive Zone, to the largest world heritage site?

Can you envision your people being relocated intact, the whole population staying together in another place?

That’s hard to envision.

Returning to the more hopeful subject of the new marine reserve, you’re also working to create a linked system of protected areas across the entire Pacific Ocean, aren’t you?

We’re looking to work with others on a Pacific Oceanscape framework and again moving ahead, moving forward. You cannot do one of these in isolation. We need to link with the rest and beyond because the ocean does not stop where political boundaries are drawn. It’s a dream, and if we all dream alike, we can make it so.

I understand that the size of the marine park is so vast—it’s a five-day boat ride from the nearest port, in Fiji—that you have not yet visited this island group.

I definitely plan to go out there. I need to make sure we have a credible presence there.

And you’ll be bringing your snorkel gear?

[Smiling brightly] I will definitely bring that.