Anote Tong was the president of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016. Matthieu Rytz is a filmmaker and visual storyteller.
The Republic of Kiribati — a nation of islands and atolls in the central Pacific — is facing annihilation. The rising ocean has broken through freshwater ponds on some islands, threatening numerous communities. Some villages are already gone.
And yet, while we’ve long known the dangers global warming poses to low-lying island nations like Kiribati, the world may not realize that Kiribati is also grappling with climate denialism, even as it faces the reality of being wiped from the map by 2100. The current president, Taneti Maamau, believes that while climate change is real, it is not man-made. Consequently, Maamau has announced his government’s official intention to “put aside the misleading and pessimistic scenario of a sinking, deserted nation.”
That also means putting aside those, like ourselves, who dare to speak the inconvenient truth. In December 2017, we hosted a local screening in Kiribati for our documentary, “Anote’s Ark,” about the destruction of our ancestral lands, calling for bold action from the international community. The government arrested the filmmaker, Matthieu Rytz, also one of the authors of this op-ed, and kicked him out of the country. Meanwhile, the UN ambassador and former president Teburoro Tito tried —unsuccessfully — to block our film’s premiere at Sundance.
Rather than enacting a viable migration strategy for Kiribati, the current administration is focusing on turning the island into the next Dubai or Singapore, building luxury resorts on previously uninhabited islands and courting investors from multinational corporations and the World Bank. This is a grave mistake. Maamau’s luxury infrastructures will eventually flood. Instead of actively dismantling climate policies set by a previous government, the current administration should focus on building realistic climate mitigation plans.
Of course, Kiribati is not alone. While President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord was the biggest slap in the face to climate change efforts, world leaders everywhere are going back on promises made in Paris three years ago.
In Brazil, if the people vote the right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency in next week’s runoff election, he will likely withdraw the country from the Paris climate agreement, subsume the environment ministry under the authority of the agriculture ministry and open indigenous territories for deforestation and mining activities. The Amazon rainforest, which covers a staggering 550 million hectares of land, is losing its ability to soak up carbon dioxide as a result of deforestation. Without an urgent and massive reforestation, the Amazon may well be gone in 100 years. Forests play a vital global role in absorbing carbon, which is why Bolsonaro’s climate policies could jeopardize our global attempt to reduce emissions.
Meanwhile, Canada is investing billions in a tar-sand oil pipeline and now sees its carbon tax plan collapsing. Norway is opening the Arctic for oil exploration. Even more troubling, Australia rejected top scientists’ advice on phasing out coal and has frozen its aid to the Green Climate Fund, which was set up in 2010 to support climate mitigation and adaptation projects around the world. The list goes on.
We are at a crucial crossroads, and we must ask ourselves what kind of future we want to build for our grandchildren. In pondering that question, let Kiribati be a lesson: Its fate will be the world’s fate if we continue burying our heads in the sand. And even if sea level rise doesn’t affect everyone, other extreme weather events set off by a warmer world will.
Scientists predict that our planet is on the path to becoming a “hothouse.” Around the time when Kiribati disappears under the water, southern Spain and other parts of Europe will turn into desert. Rainforests and coral reefs will collapse. Coastal cities around the world will flood. Wildfires in the arctic will become normal, and Berlin will grow as hot as Baghdad. No one will be immune from the catastrophic consequences of climate change. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned, the world has just over a decade to get climate change under control. If we don’t, a good portion of our civilization won’t survive.
As for Kiribati? It is already too late. But what the international community could do is assure the islanders that they will be able to migrate with dignity. It is the least they could do. As the people of Kiribati reflect on the frightening future ahead, there is no escaping the deep injustice that despite its negligible contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, this island nation will be the first to pay the price for other countries’ bad choices. It is time for the world to wake up and understand: we are all Kiribati.