This review focuses on the debate on climate change and its implications for [End Page 232] policymaking and attitudes in Kiribati. It also deals with how the government has represented this issue to the community and to the outside world through the local and international media and other channels and the impacts of such communications on I-Kiribati understanding of the issues. The review also looks at disjunctures between what is written in the country’s national development plan and what has been said by President Anote Tong, as well as the disconnects between scientific reports about and citizens’ knowledge of risks associated with climate change and possibilities to address it at all levels. As the first review of Kiribati to appear in these pages in almost two decades, rather than being comprehensive, it seeks only to highlight and discuss key trends and themes that have emerged in this debate in hope of suggesting useful directions for future reviews.
Kiribati’s position on climate change has always been, and will continue to be, centered on the notion of “disappearing nations” (Korauaba 2012). This position is driven by scientific findings that low-lying atolls such as Kiribati are in danger of sinking due to climate change and sea-level rise. Most of the land in Kiribati is currently only two to three meters above sea level. The “sinking feeling” is evidenced in impacts that people are already experiencing and is supported by growing consensus among world leaders and scientists. In response to these threats, in 2012 the Kiribati government established its Climate Change Study Team (ccst), and the Kiribati Parliament set up its Parliament Select Committee on Climate Change (psccc) to promote people’s awareness and understanding of climate change. The latter committee has been actively involved in regional and international climate-change meetings. Currently, the Kiribati Adaptation Programme (kap) is championing adaptation strategies on the ground.
The risks associated with climate change have been recognized around the world, including impacts on water quality, land, and soil, as well as increased possibilities of severe drought and flooding. In reality, there is little Kiribati can do to reduce its vulnerability, and actions being undertaken so far are described as the “no regret” measures—steps that can be beneficial even in the absence of climate change. The country’s strategies to tackle development challenges and climate-change risks are documented in its development plan for 2012–2015 (Government of Kiribati 2012). However, this plan only briefly details its climate-change adaptation strategies, and most of the president’s views about climate change as published by the local, regional, and international media have little connection to this plan. For example, the plan does not mention buying “floating metal islands” or purchasing land in Fiji. In relation to the government’s newly purchased 6,000 hectares on Vanua Levu in Fiji, Tong said in 2013 that his government had no plans to develop it but instead bought the land as an investment (Lagan 2013). More recently, however, Tong indicated the opposite in a Radio New Zealand International interview, when he stated, “The Kiribati government intends exploring options of commercial, industrial and agricultural development of the estate. This could [End Page 233] involve fish canning, beef and/or poultry farming, fruit and vegetable cultivation, to name a few” (rnzi 2014b).
Central to our understanding of the issue is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, which confirms that climate change is caused mainly by human activity (ipcc 2014). The report goes on to identify small island nations such as Kiribati as in danger of sinking, indicating as well that some people are already struggling to survive. President Tong has campaigned vigorously on the idea that Islanders are the victims and others are the culprits. He has also claimed that his people will one day have to abandon their country and migrate to other countries (see, eg, Warne 2014).
The term “climate-change refugees” has troubled President Tong, who stresses that people should “migrate with dignity” (Lagan 2013). As a long-term plan to prepare its people for migration, the government has invested in education and upgraded the Tarawa...