Rejecting Reality: Kiribati’s Shifting Climate Change Policies

In December 2015, world leaders passed the groundbreaking Paris Agreement at the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 21). In early December, world leaders met again in Madrid at COP 25 to negotiate details of the Paris Agreement and “were unable to reach consensus in many areas,” delaying decisions until 2020.

Anote Tong, then-president of the pacific island nation Kiribati, was a super-advocate for the agreement in the lead up to COP 21. Tong’s replacement, Taneti Maamau, did not fill Tong’s role at COP 25 and Kiribati’s climate change policy has regressed during his tenure. This post will examine that regression.

Kiribati’s Climate Change Apocalypse

Assuming all global climate policy goals are met, Kiribati will likely still be uninhabitable by 2100. In a business-as-usual scenario, Kiribati may disappear entirely, submerged in the Pacific Ocean.

Sea level rise alone is an existential threat to Kiribati. A 2019 Special Report on the Ocean and Crysophere by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts a rise of 1.1 meters by the end of the century if current emission levels continue. IPCC and other common estimates may be too conservative, however, and it is within the realm of possibility that sea levels will rise by two meters even if we limit warming to 2°C by the end of the century.

Kiribati’s 33 low-lying atoll and reef islands have an average elevation of around two meters above sea level. With 1.1 meters of sea level rise, two thirds of Kiribati could be underwater. With two meters of sea level rise, Kiribati would be mostly submerged.

Kiribati is likely to face devastating effects that will render its islands uninhabitable well before they disappear. Storm surges can cause rapid, localized sea level rise and flood islands with little notice. Warming oceans are likely to degrade coral reefs, disrupting local economies which rely on fish from the reefs. As the reefs die, stronger waves will pound Kiribati and increase erosion. A rising sea will also intrude into freshwater supplies, creating endemic drinking water shortages.

Where possible, measures to avert disaster are “financially unrealistic” for a country dependent on inconsistent and short-term aid. Kiribati will become prohibitively expensive to live in before it becomes uninhabitable.

Kiribati Climate Policy Under Tong

Kiribati is well positioned to have a voice disproportionate to its size in international climate diplomacy.

In contrast to the severe consequences Kiribati faces from climate change, it has low carbon emissions due to its small population and limited industrial activity.

It makes sense, therefore, that Anote Tong, Kiribati’s president from 2003 to 2016, was a vocal advocate for the Paris Agreement before and during COP 21. In the lead-up to the conference, he met with international leaders, including Pope Francis and US President Barack Obama, and delivered the opening address at the United Nations General Assembly High-level Event on Climate Change.

Tong also enacted realistic policies to prepare Kiribati for the eventual effects of climate change. Notably, he established Migration with Dignity, which recognizes that mitigation and adaptation are likely insufficient to save Kiribati and aims to prepare people to “migrate on merit and with dignity.” This includes providing education and training to allow citizens to migrate voluntarily and purchasing land in Fiji as a refuge if Kiribati becomes unable to support life.

Beyond Migration with Dignity, Tong founded the Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA), the largest marine reserve in the world. He also led the formation of the Coalition of low-lying Atoll Nations on Climate Change (CANCC) to help provide a unified voice for similar island nations, including Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Maldives and Tokelau. He also advocated for a global moratorium on coal, served on the board of Conservation International, and received numerous awards for his climate leadership and advocacy.

After leaving office in 2016, Tong has continued to advocate for action on climate change, including writing editorials, sitting for numerous interviews, starring in documentaries, providing keynote addresses and working with numerous foundations and organizations.

Tong recognizes the existential threat to his country and people and focuses his policy and advocacy on preventing it.

After Anote: Kiribati Climate-Change Policy Under Taneti Maamau

Taneti Maamau, the leader of the opposition party, won the 2016 Kiribati presidential election with 60% of the vote. Maamau does not believe humans cause climate change. Instead, he believes only divine will can unmake Kiribati and has “put aside [Tong’s] misleading and pessimistic scenario of a sinking/deserted nation.”

Maamau’s priorities are Kiribati’s economic and social concerns. He has increased copra subsidies as a de facto social program and courted international resorts and investors to provide revenue. His policies related to climate change focus on adaptation and mitigation and fail to prepare for the likely outcome that Kiribati is uninhabitable by 2100.

Maamau’s government has also tried to limit media freedoms and access, including detaining the director of the documentary following Tong’s efforts in the lead up to COP21. As he told Kiribati’s parliament, Kiribati citizens must “try to isolate [themselves] from the belief that Kiribati will be drowned[, as] the ultimate decision is God’s.”

Kiribati’s role at COP 25 was similarly reduced. Maamau was not an active advocate in the lead-up to the conference. He provided no statement. The only official event for Kiribati was a 30-minute press conference. Maamau and his administration have retreated from preparing for the inevitable impacts of climate change on Kiribati.

Causes of Kiribati’s Change of Heart

The reasons for Kiribati’s sharp change of direction are complex.

Maamau’s faith-based arguments echo a common belief in Kiribati that God will decide the islands’ fates. Other high profile Kiribati citizens share Maamau’s belief, including former president and current member of parliament Teburoro Tito, who is “not easily taken by global scientists prophesizing the future.” God, Tito suggests, “is not so silly to allow people to perish just like that.” Opinions like those of Tito and Maamau are common in Kiribati, where 91% of people are either Roman Catholic or Protestant. Many “don’t believe that God could have given [them] this world and then take it away.”

Kiribati also faces more immediate challenges. Unemployment is high, child and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the Pacific, malnutrition and diseases are persistent, and water issues are common. Gender-based violence and gender inequality is prevalent.

Given Kiribati’s limited resources and capacity, focusing on policies that address medium and long-term consequences of climate change necessarily limit the government’s ability to address short-term development goals. In a population with pressing social and economic issues, such a tradeoff is likely to be unpopular.

Finally, existential crises are polarizing and not necessarily politically salient – Kiribati citizens may just prefer to stay. As Tong himself recognizes, “there’s always a deep desire to deny” that sea level rise will put Kiribati underwater and many people give in to the emotional reaction: “No, it will never happen.” Maamau’s election could be a result of the popularity of his policies as alternatives to the inevitable loss which Tong offers.

Maamau’s shift away from Tong’s “pessimistic scenario of a sinking/deserted nation” offers a hopeful alternative to the people of Kiribati. In Maamau’s “bold scenario filled with the great faith in the Might Hand,” Kiribati residents can adapt to climate change rather than allow it to destroy their homeland.

According to Maamau, Kiribati’s fate is not inevitable.

Hope Moving Forward

Kiribati’s decision to move away from Tong’s realistic approach to climate change mirrors the struggles at COP 25. Tong’s policies and activism, like the Paris Agreement and COP 21, provided optimism that we can avoid complete disaster. But both require long-term commitment to accomplish their end goals. Such commitment remains elusive.

Countries will meet again next year for COP 26 and continue to negotiate specifics of the Paris Agreement. Anote Tong will likely continue his activism and Kiribati will eventually elect a new president as rising sea levels press the issue. Progress will continue, in spurts rather than a straight line; hopefully it will be enough for Kiribati and the world.


Caleb Ray is pursuing an MA in Global Policy Studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a JD from the University of Texas Law School. Before coming to the University of Texas, Caleb earned a BA in Anthropology from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. He also served as an Agroforestry Peace Corps volunteer the Republic of Guinea and an Americrops volunteer at a Soil and Water Conservation District in Ottertail County, Minnesota. He speaks French and is interested in sustainable management and use of natural resources to facilitate development. His ultimate goal is to be involved with implementing environmentally sustainable development policies, either at home or abroad.

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