No room for politics in climate change, says former Kiribati President Tong

Former President Tong planting mangroves with youths in Kiribati

BENGALURU, India-October 10: 4.15pm (NEW INDIAN EXPRESS): Some four years ago, headlines about a country “sinking into the sea” drew the world’s attention to the Republic of Kiribati, an island in the Central Pacific, over 5,000 km northeast of Australia.

Its former President, Anote Tong, who drew the world’s attention to the effects of global warming by highlighting his country’s “sinking” due to rising sea levels, believes “there’s no room for politics” in climate change.

“It is extremely unfortunate that climate change has become politicised, when the issue is a challenge for all humans equally. There is no room for politics in climate change. As far as countries like mine are concerned, we will be submerged regardless of what, unless something drastic is done,” Tong told IANS here during a visit to the city.

Tong, who was President of the island nation from 2003 to 2016, was in the city as a speaker at the “Roundglass Samsara Festival”, a global environment and sustainability event.

The nation, comprising 33 atolls (ring-shaped islands formed by corals) and one raised island with a population of over 110,000, has a gradually receding coastline with the sea levels rising across the world at 3.4 millimetres per year.

For a large part of its history, Kiribati remained a country the world was oblivious to, until Tong was elected President and began sharing the island’s reality with the international community.

“When I was first going to be speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in 2004, I was wondering what I could speak on that was relevant to all the countries, while also being important to my country.

“That was the first time I spoke about climate change, at a time when everyone was occupied with terrorism and global trade. But I don’t think anybody really listened to me then. But I have kept speaking ever since,” said Tong, who won against his older brother Harry Tong in presidential elections in 2003.

The issue of climate change has had many countries changing their stances with a change of political parties in government, 65-year-old Tong said.

“I’ve seen the positions of countries change on climate change with changing governments – from Australia to New Zealand and now the United States. The most positive change I’ve seen was Canada, which has taken a 180 degree turn,” the former President said.

As President, Tong took part in several sessions of the Conference of Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the decision-making platform where countries discuss and lay down guidelines for their climate change commitments.

Global leaders often argued with him that keeping the rise in global temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius could not help them achieve the economic growth they were aiming for, he said.

“But for us, climate change is not about economic growth but survival. If a country’s emissions go overboard, they become mine, and the future of my country is at stake,” Tong said.

The Paris Agreement of 2016 was “good”, but it needs many more details to be laid down so that it becomes “meaningful and effective”, he said.

Tong, who is a part of the advisory group for the 23rd session of COP to be held in Bonn, Germany, from November 6 to 17, hopes to generate a discussion that leads to “concrete and credible” action.

After Cyclone Pam hit Kiribati in 2015, living on the islands has been accompanied by fear, he said. “During that time we had mothers and grandmothers looking around to save their babies, putting them in a bucket or an icebox. This was the first time we faced something so devastating,” he said.

After New Zealand had agreed to take in 75 people from the country each year, people have been “migrating with dignity”, he said.

“I reject the notion that we should migrate as climate refugees. We have more than enough time to prepare and be brutally honest about what’s coming. People (who migrate) do miss home, but they’re happy to be finding opportunities to make a living,” Tong said.

The “reluctant leader”, as he calls himself, is not giving up on any opportunity to save his country.

“I like to think out of the box. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can build the islands up higher (raise the elevation) and make it resilient to climate change. It has been possible to build Palm Islands (in Dubai), so why not raise our islands?” he asserted.

“We have done enough damage to this planet and it’s almost beyond repair now. It’s time we arrest our actions to aid a healing process,” Tong added.

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