As humanity blazes further into the 21st century, the outcry against climate change is getting louder, but the argument is frequently weakened by the longterm nature of the threat. Recently, the South Pacific has shown the rest of the world that the threat is here, and it’s getting worse.
For larger nations, even those with extensive coastal settlement, sea-level rise is a monetary and safety risk. But for small island nations, such as Kiribati, Samoa, and Vanuatu, sea-level rise is an existential risk.
Kiribati, a country of 102,000 people and only 811 square kilometers of land, has an average elevation of only 2 meters above sea level. The most conservative estimates peg sea level rise by 2100 at a meter or more. If waters rise, a large amount of Kiribati will be underwater, displacing thousands and costing billions in damages.
“Whatever is agreed…it will not have a bearing on our future, because already, it’s too late for us … And so we are the canary. But hopefully, that experience will send a very strong message that we might be on the frontline today, but others will be on the frontline next,”
-Kiribati President Anote Tong
Faced with such a crisis, the government of Kiribati turned to its neighbor Fiji to purchase living space for its people. The purchase was successful, giving the citizens of Kiribati 20 square kilometers of land on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji Islands. Though the Kiribati population is currently sparsely settled, Kiribati President Anote Tong has said that the entire population could be relocated to the Vanua Levu land if absolutely necessary. Tong told CNN, “Whatever is agreed within the United States today, with China [the two largest sources of CO2 emissions], it will not have a bearing on our future, because already, it’s too late for us … And so we are the canary. But hopefully, that experience will send a very strong message that we might be on the frontline today, but others will be on the frontline next”.
For 12 small island nations including Kiribati, the bill to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change on property and life is estimated by a recent University of New England study to be nearly $24 billion. Against GDPs in the hundreds of millions, these nations will be forced to make difficult choices in the years to come.
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