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Kiribati ponders floating island to fight sea rise

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand >> The president of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati is so worried about climate change wiping out his country that he’s considering ideas as strange as building a floating island.

President Anote Tong raised the notion Wednesday on the opening day of a meeting of Pacific leaders in Auckland. Climate change has become a central theme of this year’s Pacific Islands Forum thanks to the presence here of United Nations Secretary-General leader Ban Ki-moon, who has vowed to put the issue at the forefront of the U.N. agenda.

Ban visited the Solomon Islands and Kiribati before coming to New Zealand and said it only strengthened his view that “something is seriously wrong with our current model of economic development.”

Tong said he’d seen models for a $2 billion floating island, which he likened to a giant offshore oil platform. He said while it sounded “like something from science fiction,” every idea had to be considered given the dire situation facing Kiribati, a low-lying archipelago with a population of 103,000.

Other ideas to combat rising ocean levels include building a series of seawalls at a cost of nearly $1 billion, Tong said, and relocating some residents to other Pacific nations. But he said he couldn’t imagine a day that Kiribati was abandoned.

“Would Kiribati disappear?” he said. “Never. Never.”

Tong said some people have already lost their homes to rising sea levels. He said he’s yet to see much in the way of financial aid from Europe despite ambitious pledges.

But in an interview with the Associated Press, European Commissioner for climate action Connie Hedegaard, who was attending the conference, said Europe has granted more than 7 billion euros for specific environmental projects around the world over the three years ending 2012.

“Climate change is not just a theoretical future. It is actually happening,” Hedegaard said. “It is destabilizing areas of the world.”

Hedegaard said she’s dismayed governments around the world haven’t reached broad agreement on reducing carbon emissions. However, she said, she is heartened that many companies and municipalities are stepping in where governments are not — as much to save money on resources as for concern over the environment.

“I see a lot of good things happening out on the ground now,” she said.

Hedegaard praised Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s push to introduce a tax on carbon emissions. That plan will go to a vote next week.

Gillard, who has been facing political pressure at home and who has been criticized for her carbon-tax plans, told reporters Wednesday that she was sure the tax plan would pass because it has enough support among lawmakers.

The Pacific leaders leave for a retreat Thursday on Waiheke Island before the conference ends. Many leaders are staying on for the Rugby World Cup which begins here Friday.

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