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Climate view from a nation doomed to drown


Caroline Atoll (Kiribati), channel between west side of Long Island and Nake Island (in background)I've been to Kiribati, so I understand its vulnerability. Straddling the equator in the central Pacific Ocean, the sea is everywhere. You're never more than one or two metres above the ocean on the long, narrow strips of coral atoll that make up a country with a total land-mass of just 811 sq km.

The significance of Kiribati is that, together with Tuvalu, it will be the first country to be drowned by global warming. The 101,998 people of Kiribati can only retreat into the lagoon or the ocean.

Already the islands are badly eroded, and unprecedented long and severe droughts are affecting fresh water supplies and the vegetation on which people depend for food. Wind directions have changed and unseasonal and more violent storms are lashing the 21 inhabited islands. It may be already too late for this unique culture, and the Kiribati government has begun negotiations with Fiji to purchase land to re-settle people.

Given that last year Australia took 170,000 immigrants I find it extraordinary that we are doing precious little for our Pacific neighbours in Kiribati who share much with us culturally and religiously. The islands are 55 per cent Catholic, 38 per cent Protestant and 3 per cent Mormon.

Geographically it's a long way from Doha to Tarawa, the Kiribati capital, but it's even further in terms of understanding the effects of global warming.

Sure, at the recent Doha conference the rich nations pledged funds to repair loss and damage from climate change in poor countries. But even though there has been recognition of the impact of global carbon emissions on poor countries like Kiribati, there is no legal framework to guarantee compensation, and high polluting countries are still unwilling to tackle their own emissions.

For instance Australia's reductions are derisively small while we remain one of the world's largest exporters of coal, a prime source for greenhouse gases.

As the Seychelles representative Ronald Jumeau bluntly told delegates 'If we had more ambition [on emission cuts from rich countries], we would not have to ask for so much money for adaptation ... What's next? Loss of our islands?' That is precisely what it means for Kiribati. And the Seychelles face a similar threat.

Nevertheless, despite fierce opposition from the United States, the agreement on compensation was recognised as a step forward even though it stopped short of any admission of legal liability on the part of the developed world and developing world polluters. It was proposed that a fund of $100 billion annually be set up to help poor nations deal with climate change disasters.

Where would these funds come from? Perhaps from existing aid and disaster relief budgets? Climate Change Minister Greg Combet rushed in to assure Australian taxpayers that they would not be exposed to these 'loss and damage' provisions, even though many Australians would not object to supporting our neighbours.

The US still refuses to ratify the Kyoto treaty so the Doha conference set up a three year process to negotiate a global climate treaty that would embrace both developed and developing countries cutting their emissions. It is proposed that it be signed in 2015 in Paris, coming into effect in 2020.

This is going to be a massively difficult process, with China, the world's biggest polluter (much of it from Australian-sourced coal), determined to retain its status as a 'developing country' even though its economy by 2020 will be the world's largest.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, where the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is projecting temperature increases of more than 4°C by 2100, we carry on as though nothing was happening.

The IPCC told the Doha conference that 'approximately 20 per cent to 30 per cent of species are likely to face increased risk of extinction' if temperature rises exceed 1.5° to 2.5°C above 1980–1999 temperatures. If the rises exceed 3.4°C 'model projections suggest extinctions ranging from 40 per cent to 70 per cent of species assessed around the globe'.

The IPCC continues that 'by 2020 between 75 and 200 million people [in Africa] are projected to be exposed to increased water stress ... Agricultural production, including access to food in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised.' Add to that ice sheet melting and sea-level rises in regions like the Ganges delta where some 135 million people live, and we have a monumental problem.

While we wring our hands and climate sceptics pretend there is no problem, back in Kiribati people are already in the midst of a climate change disaster. 

Paul Collins headshotAuthor and historian Paul Collins is a former specialist editor — religion for the ABC. His most recent book is Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia.


Topic tags: Paul Collins, Doha, climate change, global warming



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Existing comments

I read your book "Judgment Day" a little while ago and I can say it made me think more deeply about climate change from a Christian perspective. Thank you. Our neighbours in the Pacific, Kiribati and Tuvalu, are very vulnerable and Australia needs to stop 'walking by on the other side of the street' and do more, much more. Disappointing attitudes from US and China also.

Pam | 14 December 2012  

The probability of the world doing enough in time to save the likes of Kiribati and Tuvala are probably negligible, but we could do our bit to compensate by granting, sooner rather than later, Australian residency to all of our Pacific neighbours.

Ginger Meggs | 14 December 2012  

Please consult the delta commission reports of the Netherlands. That country, a substantial part of it lying below sea level, keeps a close check on the sea level for centuries. No panic there! Atolls do not originate from sea rise but from land subsidence.

Theo verbeek | 14 December 2012  

Was in K for a project run by AESOP in 1990's Problems even in those days. Many people educated and would make good citizens in the warmer areas of our nation. Culturally good and adapt to Aussie lifestyle. Could take 10.000 per year. Many would jump at such an opportunity. Some politicians like ours which is a negative.

Clemens Schaper | 14 December 2012  

What a great article! If only we could get support for these ideas from the shock jocks on radio who seem to form the opinions of an unthinking multitude.

patricia kennedy | 14 December 2012  

Maybe this vanishing nation should invite the entire LNP 'leadership' to go and visit and live there for a while? Surely, the 'Christian perspective' is a non-starter Pam, since there clearly is not a single 'Christian perspective' on this or anything else. If there were, then Abbott, who wears Pell and Rome on his sleeve, would not be so anti-the-issue, nor would any other LNP politician or business man (the LNP does not allow business women) in Australia, would they? Besides, it was the Christian reading of the Bible and God telling us to tame the planet that has got us into this mess, if you are going to trot out 'Christian perspective' as if that was somehow superior to any other 'perspective'.

janice wallace | 14 December 2012  

I've posted this before. But since the assertion that Kiribati is sinking persists, the scientific evidence against needs to be reasserted: "New Scientist June 2, 2010: "AGAINST all the odds, a number of shape-shifting islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are standing up to the effects of climate change. For years, people have warned that the smallest nations on the planet - island states that barely rise out of the ocean - face being wiped off the map by rising sea levels. Now the first analysis of the data broadly suggests the opposite: most have remained stable over the last 60 years, while some have even grown." Bottom line: of 27 islands studied, 86% either remained stable or grew, 14% shrank. And Kiribati? "...the research showed similar trends in the Republic of Kiribati, where the three main urbanised islands also “grew” – Betio by 30 percent (36ha), Bairiki by 16.3 percent (5.8ha) and Nanikai by 12.5 percent (0.8ha)." (TVNZ report: "NZ research shows Pacific islands not shrinking" June 3 2010). (Note: New Scientist is not a denialist organ.) Kiribati's critical ecological problems are to do with over-population, leading (e.g.) to exhaustion of potable water in the freshwater lens. Nothing to do with global warming.

HH | 14 December 2012  

@Janice. Always enjoy reading your comments! I certainly didn't mean to imply that a 'Christian' perspective was the only legitimate perspective. However, I do believe God clearly wants us to care for this fragile planet, we are all in this together, man and nature. I agree with you that LNP policies on the environment are very disappointing.

Pam | 14 December 2012  

Dr Collins is right ... to a point. We ought to take more responsibility for those islands imminently affected by climate change. But to suggest that climate change is caused by humans or, can be ameliorated by human effort, is not universally accepted even by scientists. You can be sceptical re human cause of climate change but there would be few to deny the reality of climate change, whatever its cause.

Father John Fleming | 14 December 2012  

Finally Eureka Street is tackling the real crisis in our world. So many articles relating to justice avoid looking at the injustice of ignoring climate change which is going to affect everyone - our children, grandchildren, etc. It is today we have to act and Paul has brought it back into focus.

Jim Erskine | 14 December 2012  

Further to my last post re. Kiribati's plight : I realize that the term "overpopulation" I used is virtually code these days for "please fly in crates of condoms/contraceptives", so would like to explicitly reject that immoral option. The moral options are: (as Paul Collins commendably suggests) to cap the population at a sustainable level and initiate an ongoing immigration stream to Australia, and to terminate any land use practices exacerbating coastal erosion & water depletion. (A desalination plant run by a mini-nuclear power plant would help in the latter issue.)

HH | 14 December 2012  

If the LAST conference was in Doha, schedule the NEXT conference for Tarawa, in Kirabati. Perhaps THAT will encourage delegates to focus on the relevant issues.

Bob GROVES | 14 December 2012  

... And Janice W is certainly right on one point. There is no "Christian perspective" on global warming, and nor can there be, since it is outside the Church's sphere of expertise (see Gaudium et spes). One is perfectly entitled as a Christian to come to an informed conclusion that "global warming" is a lot of hooey - or the contrary. The only Christian requirement in this technical question is honesty in one's enquiries.
With respect, though, Janice is wrong, unfortunately, about Tony Abbott wearing Pell/Rome on his sleeve. His Eminence is (as a person, not a spokesman of the church: important distinction which he recognizes but many fail to grasp) scathing of the global warming bandwagon. Abbott is probably in sympathy here, but unfortunately will not "come out" as much as he should. More importantly though, the Cardinal and Abbott differ crucially on the far more important issue of abortion. The Cardinal thinks it should be illegal, without cavil (I agree- it's the only position compatible with the Church's constant teaching). Abbott thinks it should be "legal, safe, and rare", a la an amiable but not exactly moral paragon, President Bill Clinton. Massive gulf between these positions.
Finally, it's obvious that how the current "mess" is to be characterised depends on whether you're a Christian/orthodox Catholic or not, a lefty or not, a warmist or not, whether you believe windfall veganism (sans the luxury of deploying the subduing-predicated internet to whinge about "subduing the earth", nb) is the only ethical lifestyle or not, etc. So, whether the Almighty stands guilty of the crime of causing our "mess" rather depends on the make up of the jury. Does anyone have any inside information?

HH | 14 December 2012  

We need more true prophets like Paul Collins! The future of humanity depends on the earth having a healthy natural environment. Devastation by human-caused climate change will escalate to catastrophic proportions unless the world acts quickly. This is the critical decade for action to avert a situation where a tipping point is reached that will result in runaway climate change. Prophets have spoken before but as usual tend to be drowned out by a media representing powerful vested interests. In his World Day of Peace Message in 1990, Pope John Paul II said, "There is growing evidence that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts, and continued injustice among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature ... The ecological cisis is a moral issue."
Surely climate change is one of the greatest moral challenges facing Christians at this time in history. The UN World Health Organisation estimates about 150 000 people are already dying annually from the effects of climate change. About 350 Australians died from heat stress alone during the 2009 Victorian bushfires. What will happen as we move into an anticipated 4 to 6 degree temperature rise?

George Allen | 15 December 2012  

You don't need to be a scientist to have a Christian perspective on the environment. Let's not get embroiled in a political debate about global warming. It's a red herring intended to distract us from our real obligations. Well all know that burning coal and pushing out crap into the air, and filling the oceans with plastic is choking not only the earth - but us. Australians who think caring for the environment is not a moral issue should visit Mexico City or Beijing - breathe the air there for a while and ask yourself if we need to change our dirty habits and think about the well-being of generations to come.

AURELIUS | 11 January 2013  

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