Kiribati Challenges World to Curb Effects of Climate Change

Like many small island countries, the nation of Kiribati is facing the likelihood of annihilation if effects of climate change continue unchecked. Yet this country of thirty-three atolls in the western Pacific Ocean has decided not to settle for simply begging major economies to curb their emissions of greenhouse gases. Instead Kiribati is leading by example, showing it is willing to make the sort of short-term sacrifice it is asking other countries to take in order to prevent long-term effects of climate change.

Because Kiribati’s consumption of fossil fuels is miniscule to begin with, the country holds hardly any power to curb global carbon emissions itself. Yet the island nation has considerable sway when it comes to another important environmental issue: preservation of the world’s increasingly fragile marine resources. In terms of geographical space under the country’s control, Kiribati is the biggest island nation in the world—and its national borders encompass some of the most diverse marine ecosystems on the planet. Over the last few years, Kiribati President Anote Tong has been finalizing the designation of some 150,000 square miles of ocean as the biggest Marine Protected Area on Earth.

At a conference on ocean conservation in California earlier this month, President Tong made it clear he hopes Kiribati’s efforts to protect marine ecosystems will inspire other countries to similarly look out for the fate of the planet. Kiribati is one of the world’s poorest countries, and relies on fishing for close to half its tax revenue. Yet the country has chosen to ban fishing and other destructive activities in the vast Phoenix Islands Protected Area, out of respect for future generations. If Kiribati can do this, then powerful countries like the US, Britain, and China ought to be able to take the arguably easier step of limiting carbon emissions and protecting the world from climate change.

Should the effects of climate change go un-checked, rising sea levels could render all or most of Kiribati uninhabitable within the lifetime of people alive today. Yet rather than give in to despair and paralysis, the nation’s leaders have chosen to blaze a trail for effective environmental stewardship. Other small island nations are acting in similar ways, notably the Maldives. A little over a year ago, newly-elected Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed announced the creation of three new marine reserves within the country’s waters. As in Kiribati, protected areas in the Maldives will help shield marine wildlife from destructive human activities while giving ocean ecosystems the best possible shot at adapting to some effects of climate change.

While the United States continues to stall far-reaching action on climate change, countries like Kiribati and Maldives are becoming environmental leaders. They are acting without the monetary and technological resources of major economies, exploding the myth that ambitious environmental plans are unrealistic. It’s now incumbent on the US and other large countries to act with similar determination, and help the planet avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Photo credit: Luigi Guarino

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.