You’ve probably heard of Kiribati by now. If you haven’t, then you know, it’s one of those Pacific Island atoll nations that are facing being wiped off the map by climate change. Well at least that’s what’s in store in the longer-term for them if we continue with business as usual. Here’s the deal: by 2030, sea level in Kiribati is projected to rise between 5-14cm, and by 2100 it’s likely to be at least 1 meter – which would be enough to swamp most of the islands.
But there is quite a lot of misinformation going around about how Kiribati is faring in the present. A recent explosion of headlines have suggested they’re already getting ready to relocate, but in truth, the Kiribati government purchased the land in Fiji as a place to grow food on, and there are no plans to relocate people there. These super-emotive stories do Kiribati a great disservice, and they’re giving the world an excuse to give up on Kiribati because it seems to be too late. The reality is that the situation is much more complicated.
Over the last 20 years, sea level has risen 1–4mm per year across Kiribati, which is below the global average of 2.8-3.6mm per year, but it is still significant enough to cause salt water intrusion into groundwater in places at king tides, and coastal erosion. How much of that sea level rise is due to climate change is not clear either – because phenomena like the El Nino-Southern Oscillation cause natural fluctuations in sea level that are hard to quantify. So relocation is on the horizon, but probably not for another decade or two at least.
However, life in Kiribati is getting increasingly challenged by other climate impacts like hotter temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, ocean acidification and increased drought. So Kiribati is already locked into some significant climate change impacts such as these, but the worst of them could be halted if we get successful at mobilising the world to stop burning coal, and phase out other fossil fuels.
So while it’s a complicated situation, and sea level rise will increasingly grab attention, I can say from first hand experience that Kiribati is a land and people that is worth fighting tooth and nail to save. Let me explain.
I first stepped onto the low-lying land of South Tarawa – the most populated atoll in Kiribati - two years ago, and was immediately confronted by the swathes of rubbish lying sprawled across the island, and the high population density for such a narrow strip of land. It's a stark contrast to the outer atolls, which are sparsely populated and by in large clean. The culture is rich and unique, and the singing exquisite.
So I was intrigued to see how things had or hadn’t changed when I returned last week, after an invitation from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) to assist them with a climate change workshop with a group of 30 local seafarers.