Kiribati is a small island nation located in the central tropical Pacific with a population of 100,000 or so and an economy roughly 10,000 times smaller than the United States. As far as international powers go, it ranks somewhere well below the G20.
Yet the G20 and the rest of the world’s leading nations will ultimately decide the fate of Kiribati, and whether it will even exist on a map in 100 years’ time. This week and the next, the United Nations is meeting in Lima, Peru to craft a framework for reducing carbon emissions that will be codified next year at the Paris Climate Summit.
The scientific community almost universally acknowledges that man-made emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases is altering the planet’s climate. In fact, just this month a team of scientists have revealed the first theoretical model to directly link emissions to degrees of global warming. With the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, the UN’s member states engaged in a non-binding agreement to keep global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius – meaning they would attempt to reduce their emissions and find alternative, and clean, sources of energy. But the problem has only worsened.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently announced that the world’s nations need to phase out the unregulated use of fossil fuels by 2100 to stave off the absolute worst effects of climate change, among them massive sea level rise. Yet the melt rate in West Antarctica has tripled in the last decade alone, and Greenland is also melting at an “unprecedented rate.” The seas will rise by this century’s end, possibly by as much as three feet.
That would be the end of Kiribati, though experts have already predicted that the island will be submerged in just 30 years. In preparation for a mass exodus, Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, purchased eight square miles of the Fijian island Vanua Levu for $8.77 million in late May. When he spoke to the Guardian, Anote seemed to take his island’s doom as a foregone conclusion.
“What strong action can happen in Paris?” he asked. “It doesn’t matter for us because what is already in the atmosphere will ensure that the problem we are facing will continue to happen.”
Underdeveloped nations like Kiribati are urging rich countries to contribute to the Green Climate Fund, a UN initiative to help countries reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change. President Obama recently pledged $2.5 billion to the Fund, but that is well short of the $100 billion commitment countries promised to make.
Meanwhile, Kiribati’s groundwater continues to fill with saltwater. “If there’s no rain, no water,” one islander told the Guardian. “That means the babies have to drink the well water and we have to boil it and boil it.”
In September, an outbreak of diarrhea killed over 20 children in two weeks.