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Former Kiribati president Anote Tong says his nation could be submerged within decades

Climate action: Anote Tong, who travels the world promoting action on climate change, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican on February 5, 2015. Mr Tong was then president of Kiribati. Photo: CNS

CAMPAIGNING for action on climate change is a matter of survival for Anote Tong and his people.

Mr Tong, president of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016, was in Australia earlier this month reminding political leaders, the Church community and anyone who would listen that the islands that made up his Pacific nation could be submerged within decades if global warming continued at current rates.

His visit coincided with the release of the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in which some of the world’s leading climate scientists warned that urgent action was needed on global warming.

While Mr Tong was in Australia raising awareness of the threat facing Kiribati and other Pacific islands, was interviewed at Caritas Australia’s Sydney office for a Facebook event organised by Caritas Australia, Pacific Calling Partnership and Catholic Earthcare.

Asked what the future was like for Kiribati, Mr Tong said, “according to the experience we are facing today and reading the reports that are coming out on climate change, we are heading into a direction where all of our islands will be submerged under water with time”.

The Kiribati islands are about two metres above sea level at their highest point and there are predictions they could be submerged by 2030.

“Our islands – we’re right on the Equator – they’re very narrow and very low land,” Mr Tong said.

“We don’t have mountains, we don’t have rivers, so where we get our fresh water from is from underground.”

With rising sea levels, that meant storms and winds coincided with king tides, sea water flooded some communities and contaminated the fresh ground water.

“There are communities who have had to leave their villages because their village has been totally wiped out,” Mr Tong said.

“And there are communities which are now in the process of doing so.

“I would say within a decade a number of communities will have to go.

“And of course, given the latest (IPCC) report, it’s saying that what was happening is going to get a lot worse.”

Asked what countries like Australia could do to help, Mr Tong, who is being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, said “the first thing to understand is everything we do which has a carbon footprint has an implication for people on the other side of the world, and this is what I’ve been travelling the world over to try and communicate”.

“Whatever you do here in Australia that has a carbon footprint – whether it’s (through the use of) coal – it’s going to have implications for people in my part of the world,” he said.

“And the reality is this … if countries insist on burning coal, and because you don’t think it will affect you or your people and because you need to do it so that you think you can maintain the level of energy prices down, then what you have to understand is that in doing so you are condemning the future of the next generation of other countries – maybe not even the next generation, but people today.

“Because the reason this is the case is because whatever emissions you are producing here in Australia never stays within your national borders.

“It crosses your borders into my space and therefore affects the future of our people – the next generation.

“I think we’ve got to change the way we do things.

“I’m not saying that we stop burning fuel but I’m saying let’s begin to transition because the technology has so developed that even today I’m told that renewable energy is actually cheaper than fossil fuel.”

Mr Tong was asked for his key messages for Australia’s decision-makers so he gave his views on leadership in general.

He said leaders had to remember that their role was not about themselves but about others.

“I think this is what is the problem,” Mr Tong said.

“I think our society, the developed society, has been focused about amassing material wealth – about how much you have in your bank account, and it’s not about your bank of human values.

“And so build up your bank of human values, and go a bit easy on amassing the cash at somebody else’s cost.

“Leadership is not about surviving the next election.

“In terms of political leadership, the comment that I’ve often made is that unfortunately today our political leadership has been focused on the next election, not the next generation.

“I think that is what is missing.”

Individuals could help by taking action in their own lives to reduce emissions and support policies that would do the same, Mr Tong said.

“It’s about finding new ways to do the same things,” he said.

“If we keep burning fossil fuels, like oil and coal, then we are heading for a very dangerous situation – other countries will be in a big problem.

“In time, if we don’t change that direction, the whole planet will be in big trouble.

“So the question is, for the sake of a little bit more comfort, are we prepared to sacrifice the future of our young people?

“That is the question that we need to ask ourselves, because nobody else is going to do it.

“This is now our time to do something about it.”

Mr Tong said climate change was the greatest moral challenge facing humanity.

“It’s about people; it’s not about your bank account; it’s not about your economic development,” he said.

“We need to look at our moral values.

“It’s about being willing to make sacrifice in order that somebody else can survive.

“And how do you value your life, your existence?

“If because you live well somebody else has lost their life, that is a responsibility.”

Mr Tong began to recognise the lack of moral leadership on the global stage.

“I thought that the global community needed greater moral guidance than it currently has because we’re so focused on GDP, on the dollar, … measuring everything in terms of the dollar,” he said.

“It’s not about how good a human being is, how much you’ve destroyed somebody else.

“Even our premier financial institutions, like the World Bank and the IMF, they count the success of nations in dollars, but not how much those dollars cost in the destruction of the environment, how much it costs in the Third World.

“These are the missing externalities which are not always taken into consideration.”

So Mr Tong decided to go to the Pope to add the moral dimension, to ask the world “are we heading in the right direction or not?”

“And I had a wonderful meeting with Pope Francis (in 2015). We spent almost two hours,” he said.

“I wanted him to intervene in this debate and so I was so happy when he said, ‘I will be issuing something’.

“And he issued his encyclical (Laudato Si’ – On Care for Our Common Home) and he also came to the United Nations to deliver an address.

“And so the Pope, I think, has made a huge difference to what happened in Paris (when nations struck an agreement on taking action on carbon emission and climate change).

“I believe we would not have achieved agreement in Paris and I always regarded what happened in Paris as a miracle.

“I think maybe God did intervene for a good reason.

“So the Pope, I think, has done what he needed to do.

“He’s brought morality into the discussion.”

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