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?