I recently answered a series of very good questions about Kiribati’s struggle against climate change for the French photojournalism outlet Rendez Vous Photos. Here is an abridged version of the original English answers:
How long have you been studying Kiribati and why did you choose this country?
I have been studying the effects of climate change in Kiribati since 2005. Kiribati is incredibly unique. Like neighbouring Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, Kiribati is existentially threatened by sea-level rise. It also has a very unusual climate experience. Thanks to El Niño events, Kiribati experiences more frequent ocean “heat waves” than almost any other country in the tropics. It is therefore an ideal place to evaluate how coral reefs – which provide food for the i-Kiribati and protect the shoreline from rising seas – will respond to rising ocean temperatures.
When do you plan to go there in the future?
My students and I are planning a field trip next spring. We will talk with local people, share our findings, and work with my local colleagues to measure recent changes in the coral reefs and water temperatures.
What are the real threats due to climate change?
Rising seas are reshaping the islands by changing when and how sand and other material is deposited and eroded (see this article in Scientific American). So the islands may not “disappear,” as is usually reported in the media, however they may become prohibitively expensive to inhabit as high tides damage homes and infrastructure and salt water infiltrates the local water supply.
What about tropical cyclones?
Kiribati is lucky in this regard. As the country is close to the equator, there is not enough spin generated by the rotation of the Earth to generate cyclones. Only the outer islands further from the equator like Butaritari have ever experienced cyclones, and the last one was over a century ago.
What are the main resources of Kiribati?
Kiribati is a big country: 33 atolls and reef islands spread across an area of ocean the size of India. Its main resource and source of government income is fishing, particularly revenue from tuna licenses. Families depend heavily on local resources, including agricultural products, especially coconuts, and coral reef resources like fish.
You describe the population as “resilient.” What do you mean by this?
There is no doubt that the future of Kiribati and its people are at risk due to climate change. Yet the people and the islands are much more resilient than stories and images in the media would have you think. The foreign journalist’s or activist’s story about helpless people being swallowed by the sea say more about foreigners’ preconceptions of Kiribati and the Pacific Islands than it does of actual Pacific people. If you go to Kiribati for a week or two with an expectation of seeing “suffering” people, that is what you will find. But if you spend more time to really get to know the culture and the history, you will find an incredibly resilient people who have managed to thrive for centuries. Traditionally, i-Kiribati saw themselves as rich, thanks to the bountiful ocean. The more recent narrative of vulnerability arose from colonialism, a greater reliance on imported food (in the capital of Tarawa), and the need to appeal to the world for action on climate change. As my former student Sophie Webber has written, vulnerability is “not a latent condition, but rather, an emergent effect.”
Why is it so important to talk about climate immigration and not climate refugees?
It is about dignity. The word refugee implies helplessness. The i-Kiribati are not helpless. They are looking for respect, and for assistance in managing a future made extremely difficult because of climate change. That means building populations of i-Kiribati people in other countries so that if the day comes that people do have to leave their home, the migrants could join an existing expatriate community rather than be treated as refugees.
You studied an old Kiribati migration to the Solomon Islands. How can this period of history help today?
During British colonial times, a number of families were resettled in the Solomon Islands due to concerns about droughts at home. My research with those people and their descendants revealed that even 60 years later, there are still issues surrounding rights to the land and equality in their adopted home. Their experience serves as a cautionary tale for policymakers planning community resettlements due to climate change.
Can the impacts of climate change be postponed by building protection against the tides or by bringing sediment to raise the levels of the islands?
Hard protection methods like sea walls can reduce flooding from higher tides but only if they are very carefully designed. Most designs only worsen erosion and exacerbate the problems. To really adapt to rising seas, you need to take actions that will expand and raise the land. It is technically possible – this is what China is doing to the islands in the South China Sea. However, as the sea level rises, this becomes more and more expensive, and the resources may not be available in Kiribati. And this will not be feasible in Kiribati – or in the South China Sea – later this century if we do not take action to slow the rate of climate change.
How can other countries help? What should they avoid doing?
Kiribati would benefit the most from efforts that build the capacity of the local people to tackle these problems. Success will not come from single land purchases, splashy one-time foreign investments, or limited-term aid projects. It will come from years of trial and error and consistent, long-term investment by the international community in implementing solutions tailored to specific locales. If you want to help Kiribati, you cannot just visit once or make a one-time offer of funding; you need to stay engaged and really work with the local people.
In conclusion, can you tell us if you are pessimistic or optimistic for their future?
I am optimistic about the Kiribati people. They are strongly tied to their communities and will do what is necessary to maintain their culture in Kiribati or in new adopted homes. The rest of the world needs to see them as real people, not as narrative devices used to lobby for climate action, even if that is done with with good intentions!