Spotlight Durban: An Island Nation’s Call For Gifts to the World

His Excellency Anote Tong, President of Kiribati
Another in a Triple Crisis and Real Climate Economics Blog series on the Durban Climate Change Conference.

Earlier this fall, I crossed the Pacific Ocean from the island nation of Kiribati, which I am privileged to serve as President, to visit the United States.

In the days just before the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, I saw and heard many references to the “resilience” of the American people. President Obama spoke of it, the covers of magazines displayed it. There is no doubt that Americans have found within them the capacity to absorb tremendous shocks, to adapt and heal from unimaginable disaster.

I listened as my American hosts spoke about your economic challenges. I understand that the hardship in your country is great. I heard of many people who are jobless, “underwater” on their home loans, and struggling to make ends meet. I know the deep insecurity that many of you feel.

These same ten years have brought another sort of disaster to my country, a constellation of low-lying, reef-fringed islands scattered across 1.3 million square miles of the South Pacific. On average, our islands are just two meters above sea level. Scientists anticipate sea level rise of one meter or more as a result of climate change within this century. You begin to see the catastrophe that Kiribati faces.

The citizens of Kiribati are resilient, yes, and I am proud of their efforts to face our grim reality. For Kiribati, climate change is not an issue for the future. We are feeling the effects now. We have begun to relocate families from places where homes are already being washed away. This is something the international community needs to understand and address. We are all citizens of this planet. We have a moral responsibility to one another.

I came to the United States to participate in a conference on resilience hosted by Ecotrust, a non-governmental organization in Portland, Oregon. Participants came from around the world to share the stories of their home regions, and to find common cause in the face of  unprecedented challenges. The threats of climate change, economic crisis, and cultural upheaval are felt in every region.

I was pleased for the opportunity to tell Kiribati’s story, although I could not offer a happy ending. But more than that, I was pleased to learn about efforts from around the world to pioneer paths for people and nature in the world that we share today: Efforts to support Arctic communities as the snow and ice that underpins their culture disappears. A campaign by nations around the Baltic Sea to designate the world’s first “eco-region.” An educator’s remarkable effort to train illiterate grandmothers to bring solar energy to rural villages in India and Africa.

Two elders from the Haisla Nation in Canada described the struggle to defend their traditional homeland, the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world. Sixteen years ago, their community rejected offers of logging jobs and instead created the Kitlope Heritage Conservancy in a co-managed partnership with the Province of British Columbia. They call it their “gift to the world.”

The phrase struck a chord with me, because the people of Kiribati have also made such a gift. Three years ago, we declared 160,000 square miles of our Phoenix Islands a fully protected marine park, off limits to fishing and to any extractive use. Today these pristine islands and waters are a United Nations World Heritage Site – in fact the largest World Heritage Site.

I think these gifts lie close to the heart of resilience: A decision to say “This is where we stop taking from the earth, and start giving back.” We need many such gifts to the world. Kiribati is a poor country that relies heavily on its marine resources for its income, but we did not hesitate to make our gift.

The Haisla elders spoke of a “magic canoe” in which we might travel together into the uncertain waters ahead. I am eager to get in that canoe and to paddle hard for my nation. I am ready for a long journey. But I fear that when we reach Kiribati, we may no longer find a place to go ashore.

This month I am representing Kiribati at COP 17, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. I don’t expect the conference to produce an answer that has eluded the international community for years. But I have arrived in Durban with a new question.

To my American friends, and to the other industrial economies that today face great uncertainties and difficult choices of their own, I ask: Are you prepared yet to build a way of life that does not depend on taking from the earth? Will that be your gift to the world?

In Kiribati and in many other places, our resilience depends on the answer.

His Excellency Anote Tong is the President of Kiribati.