Kiribati is located in the vicinity of the equator and the population is more than 105,000. It is considered very vulnerable to rising sea-levels because it consists of small islands with an average altitude above sea level of 2m. President of Kiribati Anote Tong has led the country since 2003. He has been speaking out the expected threat of his country people should leave their land by 2050 and sough for action by the international communities. President Anote Tong has been consecutively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Last month, Indian biologist Dr. Modadugu V. Gupta and Pres. Tong have been selected the first dual laureates of the Sunhak Peace Prize through recognition of their sacrifices for peace. I met President Anote Tong in Kiribati with the Sunhak Peace Prize Committee and heard his thoughts on climate change. The interview took place at President Tong’s private house 10 minutes away from the office of the President in the capital Tarawa.

Interview with President of Kiribati Anote Tong

- I heard that Kiribati stands at the forefront of global climate change. What kind of practical effects have surfaced?

“Villages are disappearing due to coastal erosion and the seawater has contaminated the freshwater and destroyed the crops. Earlier this year in March, we had the cyclone Pam which hit Vanuatu. Kiribati has never been subject to cyclones. We are on the hurricane-free belt on the equator so we should not be seeing these events. So these things are happening more frequently and it’s an experience totally new to us.

- Please explain the current efforts and future plans of the Kiribati government and its citizens in response to the climate change situation. 

“We are hoping that the international community will assist in building our resilience so that after what arises, we will be able to continue to survive on these islands. But at the same time, we’ve got to be realistic that it is very highly unlikely that the international community will come up with the level of resources that would be required to raise all the islands. So whilst we are committed to ensuring that our islands, in one way or another does not disappear, that we remain as a nation, a viable nation in the future in whatever form, we have to accept the reality that some of our people would also have to be prepared for migration. We cannot build our resilience on our own, because we do not have the resources. If the international community does not come forward, then we are talking about our entire population having to relocate.”

- I think that is why you are preparing the ‘immigration with dignity.’ So please explain what ‘immigration with dignity’ is and what some of the challenges in preparing for it are.

“What I don’t want is for our people to become climate refugees. I reject the notion of refugees. It’s degrading and undignified. It is not because we have mismanaged our economies, our politics. We would have lost our homes, but we do not want to lose our dignity as well. We would prepare our people to migrate as trained and skilled people, people who when they migrate to whatever community they do, will come in as citizens with skills, worthwhile citizens who will make a contribution to the community they are coming to. They will not be a burden to whichever society they decide to go to. They will go as dignified people. Not as second-class citizens in the countries they go to looking for special consideration.”

- How have you been using the purchased land in Fiji up until now? And what are your future plans for this land?

“The way I've been explaining about the land is that it is an investment. It’s an investment in establishing some degree of food security in the future. I’m often asked by many journalists, “so you’re going to relocate your people to Fiji?” and my answer has always been no. Why I say that is because I am fully appreciative of the political sensitivities with this large number of people migrating to one area. Somebody else might make that decision in the future. The Fiji government has expressed their willingness to accommodate our people if and when it becomes necessary. And this is the kind of humanity that I’ve been challenging the international community to come up with. 

- Is there any technological solution such as the method to elevate the islands that will allow the people to continue to live on the islands of Kiribati despite the rising sea-levels?

“I have no doubt that the solutions are there. In fact, I’ve asked the Korean government to assist on this and we’ve had technical people come to visit to do assessment. But we cannot do it on our own; we do not have the capacity to do it. We need supports from the international community. Kiribati needs a special approach because our problem is very urgent and serious. Otherwise, we have no other choice except to migrate.”

- What is the future of Kiribati as a sovereign state? Please share your opinion.

“I can assure you that we have made a commitment that we will continue to have a nation, in whatever form, in whatever scale. If it’s just a piece of land, it’s important that we have this. It may not be able to accommodate everybody. But it’s got to be able to provide somewhere to be pointed to and say “that is our country.” And we will do whatever it takes to maintain our sovereignty over the seas that are part of our Exclusive Economic Zone because there are huge resources there. So yes, we will continue to exist as a nation.”

- Do you believe that the global community will emerge victorious in the war against climate change eventually?

“The entire destruction of the planet is not an acceptable option. So we have to win this war, but the question is those people who have the ability to make the most significant impact, are they going to be willing to sacrifice their welfare and luxuries, in order for those of us on the frontline can survive?”

- How would you evaluate the UN in the international community’s response to climate change thus far?

Well up until now the rate of progress under the negotiations have been very disappointing. We don’t have to think of it from a national perspective. We have to regard ourselves as global citizens with a single planet, a single home. But if we continue to talk about our GDP, what will happen if we agree to do this. What will happen to our GDP? These are unfortunately what guide much of the discussions. No matter what level of greenhouse gases are agreed in Paris, no matter what Celsius degree we agree for the temperature rise, it will not make a difference to us. What I’ve been asking is that we need special progression for that. Don’t say that it is too late for you. No, that is not acceptable.

- Out of the 196 nations in the climatic change convention, the Republic of Korea is a nation with the 7th highest output of carbon dioxide emissions. In the quantity of its green-house gas and the emissions per capita is greater than twice the global average. Is there anything you’d like to say or request to the Korean citizens?

“Climate change is not entirely about its impact on the environment. We’ve gone past that. Now it’s about survival of nations like mine and other nations that are very vulnerable on the front-line. The issue here is the corporations are thinking in terms of their profit and loss statement and they are not thinking about people. But I understand we have very different circumstances. Korea is a country with extreme weather conditions. Very cold, you need energy in order to survive the winter and we don’t. We should be trying to do that rather than going ahead and doing things regardless of what its consequences are for the rest of humanity.”