Kiribati President Anote Tong Declares War against Climate Change

Weekly Dong-A, August 8 2015 issue (Korean Mainstream Weekly Magazine)

Translated by PR Department of Tongil Foundation 


Kiribati President Anote Tong Declares War against Climate Change


The Pacific Island nations off the shores of Australia and New Zealand have come to resent the crystalline blue South Pacific waters. With rising sea levels due to global warming, not only are the people living there losing their livelihood, but the islands as a whole also face the imminent danger of being fully submerged. In Tuvalu’s case, two of its nine islands have already been submerged. The government declared a national crisis in 2013, and efforts to emigrate these citizens have been implemented ever since. These people, who have lost their livelihood and are forced to leave their country due to environmental damage, are called “climate change refugees.”

The situation in Kiribati, which is located directly north of Tuvalu, is also very serious. Kiribati, which consists of 33 islands, averages a mere two meters in altitude above sea level. If the sea levels continue to rise at their current rate, Kiribati will find itself under water by 2050. By then, all 105,000 citizens of Kiribati will have no choice but to emigrate as climate change refugees.


“I am afraid to see what will happen.”

Kiribati’s capital of Tarawa and the Bikenibeu village in the Eita region have been severely damaged by the rise sea levels. There were originally 50 families residing there, but six houses have been flooded. The remaining families are still enduring, and have elevated their sleeping areas to prevent being swept away by the water that comes into their houses during the high tide. The mayor of the Bikenibeu village stated that, “Since 2000, I have come to know that the rise in sea levels is not a fairy tale, but the reality. I offer a special prayer every week at Sunday service. People are afraid of what is going to happen.”

Instead of just waiting for a catastrophe to happen, Kiribati President Anote Tong (63) has decided to actively deal with this by protecting his citizens’ livelihoods for the sake of the present and future generation. First of all, he expanded his scope of interest to include not only his own nation, but the entire Pacific Rim as he began spearheading efforts to protect and preserve the entire region. He designated the Phoenix Islands, which was declared the most well-preserved coral waters by the World Conservation Society in 2006, as a designated conservation area. President Tong declared this region of 400,000 square kilometers as a “Marine Conservation Park” in 2008, and prohibited fishing and other types of harvesting there. As Kiribati’s finances depend greatly on the revenue made from granting fishing access to fishing boats, and the majority of its citizens work in the fishing industry, the decision to turn the region into an ocean conservation region meant giving up on national interest. It was a “moral decision.”

He proposed the “Pacific Oceanscape,” which is a mutual cooperation network among the 23 small Pacific Island nations to co-manage the Pacific Rim region, and worked to have it adopted at the 2009 Pacific Islands Forum.

In 2010, he adopted the “Ambo Declaration” at the Kiribati Climate Change Agreement Conference held in Tarawa where heads from each nation were invited. It is a declaration urging major economic nations, including China and nations vulnerable to climate change, to investigate the cause of climate change and to collaborate on 18 pressing issues in order to take concrete actions to resolve its negative consequences on the environment.

He also contributed towards raising awareness in the global community on the human rights issues of citizens who may have to one day leave their entire livelihood and nation. President Tong purchased around 24 square kilometers of land in neighboring Fiji and expanded settlements. He has been educating people through the “Immigration with Dignity” program so that the citizens who have migrated will not be called “refugees,” but rather be treated as “immigrants” equipped with competitive skillsets and marketability. This includes various professional vocational training programs such as nursing, sailing and gardening as well as language education programs.

Due to these kinds of activities, President Tong has been sought after as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been highly recognized in the international community, receiving the Peter Benchley Ocean Award and the Hillary Award (in the field of climate equality) in 2012. In June, he was also selected as the co-recipient of the first Sunhak Peace Prize along with India’s Dr. Modadugu Vijay Gupta. The Sunhak Peace Prize was established to acknowledge individuals and organizations that have contributed towards the peace and welfare of future generations, as well as proposing a peaceful civilization fit for the 21st century. The recipients are selected by the Sunhak Peace Prize Committee (Chairman Il-Shik Hong) every year, and awarded a monetary prize of one million dollars (about 1.1billion won). We interviewed President Tong before the Award Ceremony that will take place on the August 28, and he spoke about the gravity of climate change, the response of the global community and the need for widespread cooperation.


Issue Regarding the Survival of a Small Island Nation

What is the current situation of Kiribati?

“There are entire villages that had to migrate due to the sea water flooding. There were also times when the waves reached the ponds and lakes, contaminating the fresh water sources and destroying the crops. This has happened in the past, but the problem is that they are happening more and more frequently. In March, Vanuatu was greatly damaged by the effects of Typhoon Pam, where houses were swept away by the waves. It was the first time that Kiribati experienced this kind of phenomenon.”


If we cannot block environmental contamination or prevent rising sea levels by building concrete dikes, then we must migrate. What exactly does the term “Immigration with Dignity” propose?

“I do not want Kiribati citizens to become refugees. I refute the concept of refugee itself. Climate change was not caused by our lack of political or economic management. It is the result of decisions and actions taken by other nations in the world. We have lost our home, but we cannot lose our dignity. We have the opportunity and time to prepare for what is going to happen in the future. ‘Immigration with Dignity’ prepares and educates people so that they can contribute without discrimination in whichever community they chose to move to. It is having confidence and immigrating with ease.”


What should be done for the global community to win the war against climate change?

“We must win the war against climate change. It is not a matter of choice. The important issue is when and how we are going to start a full-fledged war against climate change. Are we going to start after we have lost everything, or after we have been submerged and the future generation has disappeared? If we do not do anything, all we will have is a miserable future waiting for us. Will the influential people be ready to sacrifice their prosperity in order to help the survival of those who are standing at the frontline of climate change? If they do not help, then another region will also come to be submerged. This is the reality.”

Regarding the climate change occurring all over the earth today, President Tong said, “It is not simply an economic or environmental issue but for the small island nations, it is an issue of survival. Right now, there are no international laws or regulations in the global community that deal with climate change. We have no choice but to appeal to the natural laws of justice and sympathy. However, as intelligent beings created by God, it is only right that we take up the challenge before something terrible happens to humanity. Ultimate victory can only begin when humanity gets rid of its selfishness.”