Archaeologists estimate that the I-Kiribati have been living on their islands in the central Pacific Ocean for 2,000 years. Former President Anote Tong estimates that they have less than a hundred years to find a new home. Because of the islands’ structure, Kiribati—along with the Marshall Islands and the Maldives—is in a group of nations that are particularly vulnerable to the rising seas, king tides, and intensifying storms occurring as a result of climate change, Tong said in a conversation with Slate journalist Joshua Keating.
The virtual talk on Monday, Sept. 14, was part of Perry World House’s Global Shifts Colloquium, “Seeking Refuge in the Climate Emergency.” The two-day event also featured a conversation on Tuesday, Sept. 15, between former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and CNN analyst Samantha Vinograd about climate change’s effect on national security. Both Tong and Hagel were recently named Perry World House (PWH) visiting fellows for 2020-2021. The colloquium’s final event with the United Nation’s Patricia Espinosa was postponed to Sept. 23.
“Perry World House, especially through our Global Shifts research theme, is interested in understanding how governments and people adapt to environmental, social, political, and security changes in history and today,” said PWH director Michael Horowitz. “In global affairs, there may be no bigger driver of shifts at every level—personal, national, international—than climate change. This powerful and informative colloquium looked at how people's decisions about where to live will change as the climate does the same—and what that will mean for national and international decisions.”
Low land, ‘moral high ground’
Located just north of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and the Cook Islands, Kiribati is a cluster of low-lying atolls, “strips of coral on the top of the seamount,” Tong said.
The first time Tong attended the United Nations General Assembly as his country’s president in 2004, the focus was on terrorism and economic goals. For the Pacific archipelago he governed, this subject felt largely irrelevant. Tong was focused on survival of a different kind. He concentrated on the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “which were to me quite frightening,” he said. “Year after year, I kept talking about it, but nobody would even listen. Nobody was responding.”
Tong began to explore options, including dredging and raising the islands. “Unless we can come up with some radical adaptation strategies, we will be faced with a situation where we have to relocate most if not all of our people,” he said. He started to consider what “migration with dignity” would look like, and in 2014 acquired 20 square kilometers of land in Fiji, over a thousand miles to the southwest of Kiribati. This purchase was to “make a very loud and clear statement to the international community that this is serious, and something needs to be done,” Tong said. “What I was advocating, is we should be proactive. We should actually prepare our people.” The North African refugee crisis was in the news at this time, and Tong didn’t want to see his fellow I-Kiribati risking their lives journeying to a new country where they might be unwelcome. “Having lost their homes, I don’t want them subjected to any further indignity,” he said.
In accepting relocation as an eventual possibility, Tong is accepting loss: “Every time a population migrates, there is a loss of culture.” As a well-traveled world figure, he noted that the biggest change is to village community life, which “is lost in the western developed society,” he said. “Some of you will go back to your huge apartment with nobody there but the cat.” On Kiribati, “we’re always living with family. Even if we don’t invite them, they’ll come and stay with you,” Tong said.
I-Kiribati culture is “about understanding your connection with each other, connection with the planet, with the land that you have,” Tong said. “It’s going to be a difficult challenge to try and retain the culture. Over time, it’s going to get eroded. Hopefully, our culture, when it’s transported somewhere else, will influence in a positive way.”
Tong believes Pacific Islanders also influenced the Paris Agreement. As former colonies, islanders have “stood on the sidelines when decisions were being made in boardrooms in New York, in Tokyo … which are now impacting on our future. And I think that has been the biggest mistake, because as former colonies, we tend to think we’re on the periphery of the discussion,” Tong said. Though their islands lie at sea level, the I-Kiribati are “coming from the moral high ground.”
Although climate change has become “a political football,” rising seas “will continue coming, whichever party is in government,” Tong said. “I’ve always regarded climate change as the greatest moral challenge ever to face humanity, because if it comes to that, the question will be: How can you regard yourself as a moral human being, if you will not do what is right?”
National, global security threats from a warming world
For former U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel, the consequences of climate change relate to global stability.
“When the world is destabilized, bad things happen and there’s nothing that you can do when a hurricane hits, or wildfires,” he told Penn alumna Vinograd. “What you can do, though, is prepare.”
Hagel is a founding member of the American Security Project, an organization that has led research into the national security impact of climate change. He led a U.S. Senate delegation to the Kyoto climate change negotiations in the late 1990s. As Secretary of Defense, he issued the department’s first Arctic strategy in 2013, highlighting how the military would respond to melting ice and other challenges of global warming.
Climate change threatens the U.S. economy, the environment and national security through its impacts on military infrastructure and disaster response, he said.
“When you are looking at the possibility of bases being underwater, or putting bases out of commission, that directly reflects on our ability to defend this country,” he said.
Fragile governments around the world are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and with the erosion of governmental alliances put in place after World War II and the overall volatile state of the world, Hagel sees the makings of a world order that won’t be able to address the security effects of climate change.
“Climate change is already destabilizing us,” he said, pointing to the wildfires currently scorching California, Oregon, and Washington and Hurricane Sally along the Gulf coast. “You know there will be economic consequences, you know there will be political consequences, there will be governing consequences, and also security consequences.”
Europe and Asia have been leaders on climate change, and the U.S. has not followed suit, particularly the current administration, he said.
China understood early on that climate change would impact its citizens and also saw engaging with other countries on climate change was a way to establish themselves as a “responsible new entrant in the world order,” Hagel said.
Russia, on the other hand, has never been a leader in climate change, being the world’s largest producer of oil with a singular economy, he said. “It’s not in their interest to see the erosion of oil, coal and natural gas.”
The current administration’s “complete denial” of climate change and dismissing of science is raising the risk that the United States will fall behind other countries in dealing with the issue, which in the past was a bipartisan conversation, he said. Now, it’s seen as a Democratic issue, and it doesn’t need to be, he said.
“We’ve seen an administration that penalizes its own party members for compromising,” he said. “It’s almost like a religion now—I’m absolutely right all the time, you’re absolutely wrong all the time—and when you get that approach to democracy, you’re headed for a lot of trouble because there’s only one alternative, and that’s authoritarian government.”
At a minimum, the government should put a task force together from a number of departments and come up with recommendations, he said.
As for whether the U.S. can recover from its lack of action on climate change, he said he’s optimistic—but also realistic. “If we have more of the same mentality that’s in charge of our government over the next few years, then we will not be able to catch up. We just won’t,” Hagel said.
Ordinary citizens have a role to play by being aware of the gravity of climate change. “A citizen’s responsibility is to be aware, and when you're making your decision on who you’re going to vote for, ask that person ‘where are you on this issue? What’s your position?’” he said. “That's one thing citizens should do and can do: Be aware of what's going on.”
Homepage photo: Impacts of coastal erosion and drought on coconut palms in Kiribati.