Kiribati President Anote Tong has written a letter to world leaders urging them to cease development on all new coal mines in the hope that it will mitigate catastrophic climate change.
Kiribati is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to global warming and sea level rise, conditions the majority of climate scientists believe are exacerbated by the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Today, coal remains the planet’s cheapest but also its dirtiest fuel in terms of CO2 emissions and toxic smog.
“[T]he urgency of the issue cannot be emphasized enough,” President Tong writes in his letter.
“It is my firm conviction that as a global community we can and must take action now,” he continues. “Indeed, in his recent encyclical letter, Pope Francis wrote ‘We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.’”
Kiribati’s Uncertain Future
Because of climate change, writes Tong, Kiribati is now facing “a very uncertain future.” Sea levels have already risen 20 centimeters since the last century and melting glaciers and collapsing ice sheets are now accelerating that process. Composed of more than 30 islands in the Pacific Ocean whose average height is two meters (6.56 feet) above sea level, the nation’s groundwater is already filling with salt water. Experts have predicted that much of Kiribati will be underwater in the next 30 years.
In preparation for this disaster, the Kiribati government purchased eight square miles of a Fijian island in May 2014. The $8.77 million tract is currently being used for agriculture and fish farming, but the government will begin to relocate Kiribati’s inhabitants as their lands are swallowed by the Pacific.
Indeed, the situation could prove even more dire, as former NASA climate scientist James Hansen recently published a study showing that ocean levels could rise as high as 10 feet in just 50 years.
President Tong’s letter to his fellow world leaders is an impassioned plea to prevent such an incredible disaster.
“As leaders,” he writes, “we have a moral obligation to ensure that the future of our children, our grandchildren and their children is safe and secure.”
Coal ‘Undermines the Spirit’ of the COP21
Tong’s letter comes four months before a major international climate summit in Paris this year, the COP21, in which world leaders may decide on mandating major carbon reductions. According to Kiribati’s president, this makes a moratorium on new coal even more urgent.
“The construction of each new coal mine undermines the spirit and intent of any agreement we may reach,” he writes, “particularly in the upcoming COP21 in Paris, whilst stopping new coal mine constructions NOW will make any agreement reached in Paris truly historical.”
Major world leaders, including US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, have already made efforts to curb or reduce their nations’ emissions (an essential move, as these two nations alone produce 45 percent of the planet’s industrial CO2). Earlier this year, China announced that it was shutting down 2,000 of its coal mines, and last month President Obama unveiled the final version of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which calls for a 32 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.
Other members of the international community have reacted hostilely to calls for carbon reduction. Australia, which boasts the highest percentage of climate change deniers, is also one of the planet’s most eager to mine for coal. Prime Minister Tony Abbot has said that “coal is good for humanity” and has supported the development of mega-mines in the continent’s Galilee Basin. This comes at the expense of Australia’s carbon tax, which the Abbot government repealed last year, as well as the government’s decision to no longer invest in wind or small-scale solar projects.
In solidarity with President Tong, Ben Oquist, the executive director of Australia Institute, has criticized the PM’s enthusiasm for new coal. “Prime Minister Abbott [has] made a special effort to continue to push the need for more Australian coal, not less,” said Oquist. “This is patently at odds with any sensible global climate policy.”
Several international financiers have refused to participate in major coal development in Australia. This week, Standard Chartered removed itself from the $16 billion Carmichael coal mine and port project in Queensland. At least 11 other international banks have also washed their hands of the project.
The World Is Waiting
Passing a moratorium on new coal development, President Tong writes, “would be one positive step towards our collective global action against climate change.” He adds that “it is my sincere hope” that world leaders will add their support of this measure.
The world is waiting for their reply.