Climate refugees in the making
Climate change and the Kiribati syndrome
An imperiled island nation could transform the global-warming debate
THIS WEEK in Durban, South Africa, 194 nations are meeting to discuss global warming. The whole effort is in disarray: The Bush administration withdrew American support in 2001, in a decision that is still having disastrous consequences; China, considered a developing country, isn’t bound by Kyoto targets for reducing carbon emissions. With the world’s two biggest economies out of the discussion, Durban is crowded with little island nations and other poor, vulnerable countries that have resorted to forming a 132-nation bloc - call them the pesky unknowns - to protest the continuing environmental damage.
Another obstacle to progress is the very term “global warming,’’ which sounds like one big group hug — far too benign to generate the political momentum needed to promote renewable energy, slow deforestation, and embrace energy efficiency. Dry scientific discussions — about, say, how many more gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions the climate can tolerate — aren’t creating a compelling narrative, either. Environmentalists should focus on repackaging the problem in a way that prods people into action. We need a new name: the Kiribati syndrome.
Kiribati (pronounced “keer-ah-bass’’) is a small Pacific island nation, one made up of more than 30 coral atolls that rise, at least for now, barely 6 feet above water. It lies about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. It’s in danger: At the rate the oceans are rising, its water supplies are now contaminated by invading sea water, the lack of fresh water threatens its ability to grow crops, and several parts of the country’s most populated island are already submerged. By 2025, the entire nation will be uninhabitable.
Kiribati’s entire population of 96,000 is at risk of displacement. But President Anote Tong’s desperate plea, at the last UN climate conference in 2009, to devise a worldwide pact to limit carbon emissions went largely unheeded. Aware that there isn’t much more his country can do, Tong has a new approach to save his people: merit-based relocation.
Essentially, Tong is training his population to begin a “practical and rational’’ exodus by acquiring skills in nursing and other in-demand jobs in countries more likely to stay above water. Australia and New Zealand offer financial support and education to Kiribati’s young people, and if they graduate successfully, they can stay in those countries.
Little by little, Kiribati hopes to create pockets of emigrants all over the world. Their relatives could then receive preferential migration status and join them. Kiribati residents will leave with some control over their destinies, instead of being forced out in some last-minute evacuation of climate refugees.
But even with such a plan, the Kiribati syndrome is very scary. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the country earlier this fall. While planting a few mangrove trees, a cheap way to try to protect coastal environments, even Ban was taken aback. When he said Kiribati is at the “front of the front lines’’ on climate change, he didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Ban also knows what the United Nations has predicted: The people of Kiribati will be among millions of environmental refugees around the world. And the world, let alone the United States, has no idea what to do with them. Their status is not defined under international law, and therefore they have few political or legal rights.
Near Kiribati, only New Zealand recognizes its drowning neighbors, and allows a limited number legal status under new provisions euphemistically called “Pacific access’’ refugees. But not even genteel New Zealand can cope with an entire nation of refugees, nor the millions worldwide who are fleeing environmental distress.
Perhaps this is the political wakeup call the environmental movement has been waiting for. Nothing gets a nation like ours worked up more than the notion that people will try to desperately get here and seek humanitarian relief. Many Republicans who are seeking to run this nation may not put any stock in climate science, but they believe in immigration controls.
Is it possible that the best way to curb immigration is by seriously addressing carbon emissions? Could a small nation whose founders arrived on canoes 3,000 years ago have happened upon a bridge toward bipartisanship? “Global warming’’ hasn’t moved us politically toward a long-term solution to protect an environment the United States is fundamentally mucking up. The Kiribati syndrome may.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.