Dubbed the “Mahatma Gandhi of the Pacific” by Grammy Award Winner Ricky Kej, Anote Tong, the former President of Kiribati, who presided over this small island nation of 33 atolls exquisitely strung out like pristine pearls across the South Pacific from 2003 to 2016, took a few dramatic and controversial actions during his tenure to draw attention to their rising seas.
Perhaps the one that trended the most was buying 6,000 acres of land in Fiji in 2014 so a large number of his nation’s population of 103,000 could resettle on higher ground that is primarily a dense forest and an abandoned coconut plantation. While seen by some as an expensive publicity stunt, Tong also proposed building a floating city and has declared that his people are “the polar bears of the Pacific.”
Sure former President Tong may have done these to spark international headlines but he also wanted to use these as Tiki torches to ignite global policy actions to severely reduce the impacts of carbon emissions on his vulnerable nation before the tick-tock of the rising seas swallows them up.
As one who has written on many tangents to the environment starting with my first (now out of print) book, Be A Global Force Of One!, I’ve also been somewhat of a hypocrite as a co-author of Chicken Soup for the Volunteer’s Soul. While I’ve packed bags for the homeless; did the L.A. County Homeless Count; chaperoned blind people to Dodger Stadium, the Getty Museum and Santa Barbara among other places; given 90 pints of blood to the Red Cross and done many other volunteer drive-bys, I’ve never really been able to find my lasting “volunteer niche.”
Until I connected on LinkedIn with an earnest environmentalist in Kiribati (pronounced “Kee-ree-bahss”) nearly four years ago.
Since 2002, Ben Namakin has put himself front and center of his nation’s environmental movement as he saw global warming and the rising seas as a direct threat to the survival of his heritage and to the next generation. As the first Pacific Islander to join the UN’s International Youth Delegation at COP11 in Montreal in 2005, Namakin has since attended COP13 in Indonesia; COP15 in Copenhagen; COP16 in Cancun and COP18 in Qatar. He’s also volunteered with The Nature Conservancy; spoken at 15 college campuses in the U.S.; coordinated with 350.org on the Global Day of Action; worked for the World Wildlife Fund; earned a Climate Action Network fellow and initiated the Kiribati Shark Conservation Program in 2011 which attracted the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts and finally became law in November, 2016.
“I had to struggle; I cried; I got frustrated; had all kinds of anxiety, but in the end, I made it,” Namakin proudly states as 3.6 million kilometers (about the size of India) is now a shark sanctuary that outlaws all small and industrial fishing of this precious predator in Kiribati waters.
Also in November, 2016, the Paris Agreement entered into force whereby 197 nations agreed to keep global temperatures “well below 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels.” At that time, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was into its sixth year of subsidizing the Green Climate Fund where developed countries contributed money into a pool so poor countries could apply for funds to help lower their emissions and combat the ravages of climate change on their homelands.
According to FactCheck.org, the U.S. has paid $500 million into its $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund. But with the current Administration, that has stopped. On May 13, U.S. State Department envoy Trigg Talley announced that the U.S. will not contribute to the Green Climate Fund this year. And on June 1, President Trump officially yanked the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement.
The ramifications to this radical shift in environmental policy do not alter the reality of our changing climate one millimeter. While some perceive it as an existential threat in a murky future down the road, the citizens on these island specks in Kiribati are dealing with exigent threats that are lapping at their doorsteps every single day.
“Climate change is happening outside my house,” Namakin, 36, explains. “Stronger King tides killed our breadfruits, plants and other crops that had been there for ages but were gone within just five minutes.”
“I was shocked when the US Administration pulled out the Paris Agreement and stopped supporting the Green Climate Fund. Kiribati and other small island states are paying the price of US actions and other developed countries. This will mean more rising sea levels, coastal erosion and sea temperature rise. It will be so devastating to us Pacific Islanders,” he says without mincing words. Indeed, the Australian National Tidal Centre says that sea levels in Kiribati have averaged an increase in 3.7 millimeters a year since 1992.
Seldom do we turn the prism upside down to thoroughly understand this 30-year fossil fuel/governmental/scientific scrum about climate change from the 6-foot level at ground zero and not the 30,000-foot level. Now the Executive Director of a newly formed NGO called the Kiribati Islands Conservation Society (KISC), Namakin has helped me learn about the #1 issue facing our planet from the inside out. And that we as a leadership nation must do more to somehow help them stem the tide, or at a minimum offer our skills for hopeful alternatives. To that end, I’ve volunteered scores of hours consulting Ben on applications for Leadership Programs; Environmental Fellowship Programs; letters to various officials and helping him achieve his next goal of a becoming a pilot for Air Kiribati.
Yet while fish are floating in the streets of Miami; California’s coastline is increasingly hemorrhaging from stronger waves and sea level rise; West Africa’s coasts are receding; Indonesia is expected to lose 1,500 islands; New Jersey is losing six inches of its shoreline every year; Cape Cod’s groundwater is threatened by saltwater seepage and the Nile Delta is disappearing, Kiribati is the “poster nation” of all of the globe’s rising seas.
Here’s why: imagine the Rose Bowl with a standing room only crowd filled to the brim with 103,000. That’s the population of the entire nation of Kiribati that may have to migrate from their 3000-year-old civilization during the 2020s before it is washed away.
The very survival of Kiribati and dozens of other coastal nations around the world are intrinsically tied to our own survival. As the richest nation on earth, the U.S. will patch our way forward as the seas around us continue their march to land. But more than ever, we owe those whose lives and civilizations are on the brink via our burning of fossil fuels much more than thumbing our noses at their plight by pulling out of the Paris Agreement and de-funding the Green Climate Fund. If we can make a stand for this first wave of nations that are under such primal urgency and kick start our support for them individually and collectively, then we can simultaneously better prepare for the inevitable sea change we all face worldwide and lead the global community once again to make sure our Blue Planet doesn’t go to Code Blue.
Author of Be A Global Force Of One! and a co-author of Chicken Soup For the Volunteer’s Soul, John T. Boal is a national accounts director for a New York-based nonprofit and resides in Burbank.