Whenever Anote Tong gets a chance to go fishing along the coast of his island, he expects to find yet another line of coconut trees that have been toppled by coastal erosion.
The president of the Republic of Kiribati, a nation of 33 tiny islands spread across a large swath of the central Pacific, has watched rising seas take beaches, crop plantations and entire villages, leaving nothing but a flooded church building.
For islanders, he says, climate change is real now.
“Entire communities have had to leave already. What we see now is an acceleration of the process, in a very short period of time.”
Salt water has already broken into some freshwater ponds and killed food crops and the rising ocean has flooded previously usable land. “More villagers will have to move within the next five years.”
President Tong was addressing the first ever conference on climate change and the Pacific, In the Eye of the Storm, held at Victoria University this week. He told the audience that people living on low-lying islands in the Pacific don’t have to wait to the end of the century to feel the brunt of climate change impacts.
His focus now is to “keep our people out of the water for the next decades”, and to do that he has launched a fund-raising campaign to raise the islands artificially, with the help of Dutch engineers who have constructed uplifted islands around the Netherlands.
While he has welcomed the Paris agreement, reached at the UN climate summit in December, as a first global acknowledgement of climate change impacts, he says the goal of keeping temperature rise below two degrees above pre-industrial levels is too little too late for his people.
“Even at 1.5 degrees, the oceans will keep rising. We’ve got to stay out of the water and the way to do that is to build the islands up, to live on floating islands or to get out.”
As a safeguard, the Kiribati government has already bought land in Fiji, but president Tong says migration is a last resort. If his people have to leave their island home, he wants them to be able to that with dignity.
“I’ve always rejected the notion that our people will become climate refugees. Just the very connotation is inacceptable. As a government we’ve taken on the responsibility that that does not happen, so we’re backing adaptation programmes.”
One part of his nation’s climate adaptation plan is to raise Kiribati, but he has also formed a coalition with other low-lying atolls, including Tuvalu and Tokelau.
President Tong describes the group’s aim as a Marshall plan for the Pacific.
The Pacific Rising initiative takes a three-pronged approach of investment, capacity-building and cultural preservation for these islands as they face climate change impacts such as rising seas, more damaging floods and droughts, and extreme temperature peaks.
“We are owed this”, says Anote Tong. “It’s time that there is something like this that’s done not for a military purpose but for the people who are trying to survive in the face of a threat that’s created by humans.”
James Renwick, a climate scientist at Victoria University in Wellington, says the Pacific faces several climate-related challenges.
“The warming in the tropical Pacific is roughly at the global rate, but there’s a big question around whether the eastern Pacific is warming faster than the western Pacific, and whether we therefore get more El Niño events.
“What we do know is that the rainfall extremes are likely to get larger. More moisture in the air means that when it rains, there’s more water coming down, but there are also longer dry spells in between. Droughts and floods both become more intense.”
The main feature of the climate that brings water to the south/west Pacific is the South Pacific Convergence Zone.
“That’s essentially a long line of storms from Papua New Guinea to the south of Samoa, and there’s an indication that that line may move north a bit. When there are strong El Niños such as this year’s event, it can flip a long way out of its normal position and the rainfall can be removed from places like Vanuatu or Fiji.”
Although climate scientists predict fewer tropical cyclones in the future, those that do form are likely to be much stronger.
The most immediate threat, however, is the rising ocean. Professor Renwick says the seas have already risen by about 20 centimetres, and coastal studies show that every 10cm rise in sea level roughly triples the risk of coastal inundation.
“We don’t need much more sea level rise before there is a big problem. When there’s a storm, it doesn’t even have to be a tropical cyclone, you can get inundation and coastal erosion much more easily than you would have got without that sea level rise.”