APIA, SAMOA » In his first 19 years of life, Apisaloma Tawati, a resident of the remote, flat island nation of Kiribati, has watched the seas gradually wash away the shoreline around his home island of Tarawa.
He’s seen nearby families take shelter with relatives living farther inland as the shore lands they once owned erode and disappear. He’s watched crops fail and trees die as salt water intrudes the atoll. He’s observed the sea walls built to hold back encroaching water collapse.
He worries Tarawa will eventually be uninhabitable.
“We are afraid of our future,” Tawati (pronounced Tah-wahs) said Wednesday, following a United Nations panel on sea-level rise and its threat to overrun atoll nations such as Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
If the rising trend continues, “we will have no lands,” he added. “I don’t want to leave my country. I love my country. I want to die there.”
Tawati and the president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, have joined leaders of other threatened far-flung atolls this week at the U.N. Small Island Developing States Conference to raise awareness of their plight — and to plead for more serious global action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Hawaii-based voyaging canoes Hokule‘a and Hikianalia arrived at the conference Monday, as part of their Malama Honua (“Care for the Earth”) worldwide voyage.
As many as 3,000 delegates from dozens of U.N. member states are discussing renewable energy, sustainable development, food security and other challenges facing these island nations.
The everyday effects of climate change are being felt first and most strongly by residents of these low-lying islands — the same small communities that contributed little to the warming trend in the first place, Tong and other atoll nation leaders say.
There are various estimates on just how high the sea will rise in the next 100 years.
Generally, the worst-case scenarios in United Nations and U.S. studies that assume greenhouse gas production will continue at its current level predict roughly a 3-foot sea-level rise by the end of this century, researchers say.
Tong bluntly called the group assembled Wednesday the “coalition of sinking islands.” Many of these places reach no more than 6 to 9 feet above sea level, with no high ground available for retreat.
“We’ve got nowhere to move back,” Tong said Wednesday. “We are facing a very, very serious threat.”
The atoll leaders called on U.N. states to take legally binding steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and to mitigate the effects that are already being seen on the “front lines” of climate change, on the atolls.
Their comments came ahead of another summit taking place in New York at the end of September. That summit, convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is aimed at spurring legally binding pacts signed by the international community next year to take more forceful action against climate change.
Some of the mitigation steps could involve “radical, crazy ideas,” such as somehow building islands higher, Tong said. But he added that he hopes to leave the conference with some practical ways to address the sea-rise threats.
Kiribati, a nation of some 33 islands with more than 100,000 residents located about halfway between Samoa and Hawaii, recently purchased 6,000 acres on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu, as a potential future sanctuary.
Tawati doesn’t want to see it come to that. Eventually, he said, more coastal residents around the world will likely have to deal with the same problem.
“We’ve been talking about migration,” he said. “But migration isn’t going to stop climate change.”
The Hokule‘a and Hikianalia plan to stop at another atoll threatened by sea-level rise, Tokelau, when the canoes leave Apia on Friday.