Over 119,000 people of Kiribati at risk of losing their homes as rising sea levels slowly inundate the islands. Scientists believe the island nation could become inhabitable by 2050.
The following are excerpts from The Korea Herald’s interview with Tong.
KH: Tell us about how the climate crisis is afflicting Pacific island countries.
Tong: Several of the island countries in the Pacific comprise either entirely of or have outlining communities on low-lying atoll islands which on average are about two meters above sea level, so the increasing intensity and frequency of tidal flooding resulting in destruction of homes, food crops and water supply. Therefore, unless the global community, but especially the developed countries, can drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions these island countries will not be able to remain habitable by the middle of this century and their people displaced due to rising seas and the increasing intensity of tropical storms.
KH: Low-lying islands remain extremely vulnerable to climate change-driven rises in sea levels. How much time do we have left?
Tong: In their 4th Assessment Report released in 2007, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had projected that even if global emissions were to be cut to zero then the most vulnerable countries especially the low lying islands, most of which are in the Pacific, may be submerged due to rising sea levels, by the end of the century. In their 6th and latest Assessment Report released in February this year, the IPCC have now predicted that our islands will be uninhabitable by 2050, as emissions and global temperatures continue to rise.
KH: How are people of Kiribati reacting to climate change?
Tong: The reaction of our people to the implications of climate change to their future has been diverse. Many continue to regard the worsening impacts as part of a normal cycle of events, which they have been experiencing over the years, and find it hard to accept that worse is still to come.
As more people — especially younger generations — begin to follow climate discussions more closely, there is growing anger and frustration at the developed countries and the international community for not addressing the situation.
KH: How have your messages about climate change been received?
Tong: I have been accused of scaremongering in response to my efforts to inform the people. Some accuse me of heresy in contradicting the promise of God that there shall be no more floods. But the daily lives of our people revolve around their daily subsistence existence, which essentially takes life on a day-by-day basis.
I also regret to say that there was also a politicization of the issue with the change in our administration but that has also been the case in other countries like the Unites States, Australia and New Zealand where policies on climate change with the changes in administrations. Climate change is the greatest moral challenge and existential threat to our people and for the rest of humanity and should never be a political football.
KH: What are the most urgent tasks facing Pacific island countries, including Kiribati?
Tong: Regardless of any reduction in emissions, for countries like Kiribati, unless we can find some way to build the necessary resilience to remain above the rising seas our only option would be to relocate to other countries. I have always believed that as a first option we must undertake whatever adaptation measures we need to in order to have our people remain in their home islands. This would be a hugely costly undertaking and we do not have the resources to do it. Given our experience of the unwillingness of the developed countries to even cut their emissions and their rejection of any liability for damages, I do not believe that the international community is likely to provide us the resources to build the resilience we need. So in the event that we are unable to remain on our home islands I postulated a policy of Migration with Dignity, rather than have our people migrate as climate refugees.
KH: What’s happening to our oceans? And are we approaching the point of no return?
Tong: Unlike what happens on land and in the atmosphere, the ocean does not always show signs of degradation. So what is lost at sea and what rubbish is dumped in the oceans are not so visible. However, scientific research has now revealed that even in the deepest oceans plastics and other pollutants are already entering the food cycles of marine organisms. The global rise in emissions are raising ocean temperatures and ocean acidity resulting in coral degradation and disruption of normal ocean circulation patterns.
As a region the Pacific people have been opposing proposals for the dumping of nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean, especially Japan’s proposal currently under discussion for dumping nuclear waste from their Fukushima nuclear plants into the northern Pacific.
KH: Over the years you have done so much to protect the oceans. Tell us why ocean preservation matters.
Tong: Kiribati, like many of the Pacific island countries, is a huge nation of water with its 33 atoll islands with a combined total land mass of around 800 square kilometers scattered over 3.5 million square kilometers of Exclusive Economic Zone. The Western and Central Pacific Tuna fishery hosts around 60 percent of the world tuna resources which supports a multi-billion dollar industry and provides the main source of revenue for most of the island countries. Virtually all of the major distant water fishing nations operate in these EEZs. In order to maintain the sustainability of this important fishery strict regional management measures are enforced and the design of marine protected areas encouraged. Some of these island countries also have abundant deep seabed minerals such as manganese nodules and crusts, but due to environmental concerns no active mining has yet started.
KH: How is the fishing industry impacting the marine ecosystem? How can we make sustainable fishing?
Tong: The Western and Central Pacific Tuna fishery had already shown signs of the more targeted species — such as bigeye and yellowfin tuna — being under serious threat of being overfished. Even with the introduction of a fee system based on payment per days fished per vessel, the ever increasing efficiency of equipment and technology will continue to mount pressure on fish stocks. Even if the volume of fish taken from the fishery is capped at a set sustainable level, the reliability of the data will be compromised by the high incidences of illegal and unreported catches. The very large EEZs of most of the Pacific island countries and lack of surveillance capacity makes effective enforcement virtually impossible.
KH: How have countries responded to calls for accountability in climate change?
Tong: As countries on the front line of this impending catastrophe, Pacific island countries have not only advocated strongly for the reduction in emissions, as a matter of urgency, but have repeatedly demanded responsibility for compensation, ie liability, by the high emission countries to provide the resources needed to enable our people to build the resilience in order to survive the impacts of climate change. As recently as the last meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Scotland in 2021, the developed countries have once again rejected any liability for damages caused by climate change.