Itâ€™s this time of the year; another Pacific Island Forum annual conference opens, this time in Pohnpei. The Forum is a regional talking shop of Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian island states, as well as, in a rather thankless role of â€œbig brothersâ€, Australia and New Zealand, countries which provide most foreign aid and also cope most flak whenever something goes wrong in the region.
Pacific island leaders from some of the smallest countries facing potential climate change wipe-out are discussing their fights for survival in Micronesia…
Leaders from smaller island states – Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu – have met separately before the main forum to discuss how they can tap into climate change mitigation funding as well as health, air and sea transport issues.
I have been to three of the six â€“ Cook Islands, Kiribati and Palau â€“ and I know that the threat of rising sea levels caused by climate change is the top of their concerns. I also know that â€œclimate changeâ€ has become the new favourite issue to pluck at the developed worldâ€™s heartstrings and a great new cash-cow in a world where you increasingly need sexy issues to wring the foreign aid money out of reluctant and cash-strapped donors. Economic development? Water supply? Primary education? Boring. Climate change? Very topical, with the added bonus of playing on the Westâ€™s guilt (your SUVs are drowning my islands), which might not feel as guilty and responsible for the more prosaic â€œThird World problemsâ€.
Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) has been the undisputed leader of the Pacific anti-CO2 crusade. Its main island, Tarawa, is a sinuous atoll, which at no point reaches more than 3 metres above sea level. Some 60,000 people, most of them very young, are squeezed on the 500km2 of sand, majority of them on a fraction of that land. It certainly sounds precarious if not dire.
As one very senior official from a Pacific nation that shall remain nameless told me, â€œThe problem with Kiribati is that they will drown in their shit long before they drown in the ocean.â€
A rather crude formulation, but it points to some hard truths, the chief among them that of all the myriad problems that Kiribati and other similar island states face, there are dozens more serious and more immediate than climate change.
Tarawa is grossly overpopulated. The island would struggle to sustain a much smaller population, never mind the current 60,000 residents. The whole country is not economically viable. There is in fact no economy as such. The only natural resource is the fisheries, the rights to which are sold to foreign fleets, including the Japanese and South Korean ones. That and the foreign aid provide the largest sources of revenue for the government, but hardly any jobs. The standard of living is correspondingly low, as is that of government services. Infrastructure, including water and sanitation, ranges from non-existent to poor. Residents use the lagoon inside the atoll as a toilet. Not surprisingly there is hardly any tourist industry; Kiribati is the second least visited country on Earth. The lovely and friendly people of Kiribati try to make the most of what few cards they have been dealt by life, but it is a hopeless struggle.
Climate change might or might not be happening as understood by its alarmist proponents. Even if it is, its specific effects on local climates and conditions (such as the sea levels and the frequency of violent weather events) are still largely unknown and in any case long term. Despite the oft-repeated claims, there is no actual evidence that Kiribati has been losing land to inundation.
The official is right: the problems flowing from climate change might happen far in the future, if at all; the problems flowing from over-population, economic unviability, and poor governance are real and immediate. But they donâ€™t excite Western consciences as much as prospects of sunken islands and climate refugees, and consequently donâ€™t open wallets nearly as wide as a good environmental scare. The islanders understand that. Iâ€™m not suggesting for a moment that they donâ€™t honestly believe in the reality of climate change and the threat it poses to their future, but they certainly know how to milk it for all the publicity and aid.
Kiribati will not be the future Atlantis of climate change alarmism, at least not any time soon. Its unviability as a state, however, poses a clear and present danger to its residents, and a challenge to developed regional neighbours and donors. There might come a time when countries like Australia, New Zealand or perhaps the United States might have to effectively absorb countries like Kiribati in order to save them. Economic refugees will turn up on our doorstep much sooner than climate refugees.
(All photos: Arthur Chrenkoff)