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Global Risks: Climate Change

Mitigation and Adaptation Failure

in Kiribati
Security Scholar: Ms. Briar Thompson
Published: September 8, 2014

Every year since 2005, the World Economic
Forum in Geneva has published a Global Risks
Report, analyzing the major challenges facing
the world. This year, failure to mitigate climate
change was listed 5th out of 31 risks, followed
at 6th by a greater incidence of extreme
weather events.
Thousands of miles away,
residents of the small islands of Kiribati did not
need to read the WEF report to learn that
climate change is a serious threat to the world.
Living on atolls where most land is less than 3-
4m above sea level,
they know firsthand how
vulnerable they are and what is at stake if we
fail to mitigate global climate change.

Small island developing states like Kiribati
cannot mitigate or adapt to climate change
alone, nor can they address the risks presented
by a possible failure of international efforts.
Climate change, and global failure to
adequately respond to it, presents a clear
security issue in the Pacific. Not just human
security, but also a test of our regional capacity
and resilience and of global governance.

Cl i mate Change as a Securi ty Issue

Climate change is a threat to small island
developing states like Kiribati. An incremental
rise in sea levels,
rises in ocean surface
temperature and acidification,
and a number of
extreme weather events have combined with
natural El Nio/La Nia variability and local
development to erode coastal areas,
homes and infrastructure, change the soil
composition, damage the coral reef and
increase pressure on fresh water lenses.
Storms, increasing in frequency and intensity,
have compounded the slower moving impacts
and local factors, destroying crops, disrupting
sewerage systems, and causing intensive
The last two combined present a
serious health risk to I-Kiribati, the people of
Climate change, by threatening water
supply, food security, shelter, and subsequently
health and livelihoods, is a threat to human

Without human security, there is no state
security for Kiribati. Its often said that where
there is water there is life, but the opposite is
also tragically true. In 2011, droughts saw
Tuvalu and Tokelau run out of fresh water,
national emergencies were declared.
Desalination units were flown in to Tuvalu as
part of a military aid response from neighboring
A robust humanitarian and military
response is increasingly needed following
extreme weather events reportedly linked to
climatic changes. Even the Pentagon has
acknowledged that climate change is one of the
major challenges already shaping US military
despite the preference of the
House of Representatives to dismiss it
altogether from military planning.

Briar Thompson is a member of the inaugural
class of Pacific Security Scholars. A Rhodes
Scholar from New Zealand, she is pursuing
graduate education at Somerville College,
University of Oxford.

Security Scholars
Policy Analysis from Next Generation Leaders
Pacific Islands Society | Pacific Security Scholars | September 8, 2014
The sea level
may be rising slowly for Kiribati
in recent years the sea level has been almost
but even small future increases will be
enough to make large swathes of land
uninhabitable. Rises in sea level serve to
compound other factors
that are contributing
to coastal erosion and flooding in Kiribati. Sand
and reef rock mining, causeway construction,
and poor construction of sea walls,
pollution of
the lagoon through waste dumping and poor
which impacts on reef health, and
overfishing of the reef fish that help built up
coral sands are all possible contributors to a
changing coastline vulnerable to inundation.

These activities are exacerbated by the internal
migration occurring in response to changes in
both the environment and the labor market. As
of 2011, the population density in Betio, one of
Kiribatis islands, was higher Hong Kongs;

this will only increase as development activities
erode the coastline and the sea continues to
encroach on all sides. This raises another
security implication: the threat that climate
change may pose to sovereignty in low-lying
atoll countries like Kiribati. Eventually people
will have nowhere to go within the country: if, in
the long term, all the people flee for other
shores, what becomes of Kiribatis sovereignty?
Will Kiribati still be Kiribati, though in exile?

Most nations go to war and fight back when
their sovereignty is threatened. Kiribati is
building its defenses, with coastal protection
walls and improved water supplies, and being
proactive in joining the UN primarily to lobby on
climate change, but they will not win the battle
without many allies.

After the release of doomsday films like The
Day After Tomorrow, debate arose amongst
reviewers in the West about whether the
portrayal or even experience of catastrophic
natural disasters in the West would spur action
on climate change.
If decision makers in high
emission countries experienced the threat on
their own turf, the general reasoning went, they
would finally act. But almost two years after
Hurricane Sandy hit major population centers in
the eastern United States,
we still have not
had the paradigm shift required to back the
ambitious targets necessary to begin curbing
the effects of climate change.

Ki ri bati s Adaptati on Efforts

Kiribatis government and people have
implemented many adaptation programs
focused on building coastal protection,
improving water collection and storage, and
ensuring food security.
Kiribati purchased 20
square kilometers from the Church of England
in Vanua Levu, Fiji,
which is being used for
agriculture and fish farming,
compensating for
the decline in crops due to increasing soil
salinity and a lack of fresh water for irrigation.
More could be done to minimize coastal
vulnerability in Kiribati, particularly through
reducing sand and coral reef mining,
conducting thorough environmental impact
assessments before the construction of
causeways, carefully managing waste disposal,
and sustainably managing fisheries. Education
campaigns alone will not be sufficient. They will
need to be supported by technical assistance
as well as a provision of alternatives
alternatives to sand and reef rock for
construction, and alternatives to reef fish for
food sources, for example from outside

Recognizing the need to plan for the future,
Kiribati is also implementing a multi-pronged
migration with dignity strategy.
opportunities are provided, where possible, for
those who want to emigrate to do so,
encouraging them to set up expatriate
communities in other countries, ready to absorb
or support future flows of I-Kiribati migrants
based on family ties, and send critical
remittances in the meantime. Remittances aid
adaptation efforts and the departure of some
citizens eases the pressure on the countrys
scarce natural resources. Second, Kiribati is
raising the standard of qualifications offered in
the country to meet that of Australia and New
Zealand, so they will be recognized
and encouraging more people
to go through training, for example to become
nurses. The intended benefits are twofold
graduates will improve local services, and will
also have increased prospects for labor or
Pacific Islands Society | Pacific Security Scholars | September 8, 2014
merits-based migration. Kiribatis President
Anote Tong has indicated that he wants his
people to be an asset to other countries, not a

The use of family, education and labor
migration pathways over time are not only more
realistic for the I-Kiribati than a one-off
humanitarian relocation, but also more suitable,
given the gradual pace of climate change and
of migration, and given the history of Pacific
Island migration to neighboring countries for
work, study and family reunification.

However, it is important to note that relocation is
a last resort survival strategy for the I-Kiribati
and many other Pacific Island peoples. The
majority of citizens do not want to leave their
Relocation could threaten the
nations culture, language and traditions. Over
the long term, relocation will still leave behind
those who are unwilling or unable to relocate,
increasingly vulnerable with fewer resources left
to adapt.
These substantial protection gaps
are often forgotten when emphasizing the
needs of those who are fleeing.

Focusing on relocation also risks diverting
international attention away from the investment
needed for adaptation measures within the
country to deal with the challenges it is already

Despite the many headlines that Kiribati or
Tuvalu will be the first island to disappear
below the waves, they will not be the first to
relocate their people because of climate
change. In 2009 Papua New Guinea began
relocating their people in the Carterets Islands
to Bougainville, partially due to sea level rise
and its impacts.
Kiribati would not be the first
large group of people to relocate to other
Pacific countries either. Some communities
have already moved from Banaba Island (now
part of Kiribati) to Rabi, Fiji; from Vaitupu (now
part of Tuvalu) to northern Fiji; and from other
parts of modern Kiribati to the Solomon
To say that Kiribati might be the first
gives the impression that, thus far, we have
managed to hold off the worst of climate
change. This is as misleading as the idea that
islands are sinking, distracting from the fact
that climate change, as an impact multiplier and
will make the islands unable to
sustain life long before the ocean covers their

Kiribati will not be the last to become
uninhabitable either. The plight of Kiribati
portends similar challenges for many other
small island states, as well as parts of countries
like Bangladesh and Alaska, where the effects
of climate change are already wreaking havoc
on peoples lives.

Room for a Regi onal Approach

For Kiribati, perhaps hope can be found in
regional assistance. Regional cooperation will
be crucial for providing locally specific
adaptation solutions, drawing on the knowledge
and skills built up in other Pacific countries
experiencing similar changes. Locally focused
approaches are in line with the Niue Declaration
on Climate Change and the Pacific Islands
Framework for Action on Climate Change. A
strong history of regional cooperation already
exists for humanitarian and military responses,
as well as technical assistance. And a regional
approach will best support Kiribatis migration
with dignity policy, if Pacific countries (continue
to) offer labor migration schemes, pathways to
residency such as New Zealands Pacific
Access Category, discretion to grant
humanitarian residency in the absence of a
legal precedent for asylum based on climate
scholarships for study abroad, and
financial and technical support for education
within Kiribati.

The challenge will be in ramping up all forms of
support and assistance, because the type of
intensive, sustained adaptation required to
address the changes already being felt in
Kiribati calls for substantial funding and
technical expertise. Regional cooperation
should also extend to a united backing and
echoing of Kiribatis calls for more ambitious
and urgent mitigation and adaptation efforts at
climate change summits, though this is unlikely
to develop in time for the 2015 summit, given
Pacific Islands Society | Pacific Security Scholars | September 8, 2014
the current divergent focus of most national

Lack of Internati onal Cooperati on

Kiribati is not just a canary in a coalmine,
serving to show the human cost of the
increasingly defeatist acceptance of adaptation
without mitigation. Kiribati is a mirror reflecting
back at the international community's lack of
substantial collaboration. The 2014 World
Economic Forum Global Risks Report said,
Global risks can only be addressed at a global
level. Addressing risks effectively takes not only
a common understanding of the issues and a
willingness to work together but also the
building of mutual trust and nurturing of the
capacity for long-term thinking.
While there is
certainly more that Kiribati can do, and they will
continue to adapt and build regional
cooperation, what is really needed in order to
protect their security and sovereignty is
international leadership and cooperation. If we
cannot work together to address climate
change, what hope is there for other forms of
cooperation on other global risks? Might the
forecast for Kiribati, desperately fighting off the
reality that without others it will cease to sustain
itself, reflect the state of our capacity for
international cooperation?

As many countries have retreated to focusing
on their domestic issues, prioritizing their
national interest, calls to focus on adaptation
alone have become increasingly common and
accepted. However, Kiribati's people may view
these calls as though they are steeped in
ignorance, coming across as harsh warnings to
get used to it. If the Paris 2015 climate
conference becomes yet another chance to
protect and safeguard short term GDP and
national priorities by blocking mitigative
remedies that might threaten them, it will not
only be Kiribati that suffers. The hope placed in
international cooperation will be shown as futile,
the capacity of our leaders to reach agreements
limited, and the international community we
uphold as the answer to the global risks we
face broken. This realization will have far wider
reaching security implications than only
determining the future of Kiribati. As President
Tong stressed in a 2009 speech, Climate
change is the greatest moral challenge of the
21st century. It calls into question the ability of
our international institutions, and our
compassion as human beings, to face this

Although Tong ended his statement proclaiming
We cannot handle this alone, Kiribati and
other Pacific islands may find themselves trying
to do just that, because even if international
cooperation fails, the islands still have to
respond to the threat. Such a response is
unlikely to be effective. Kiribati has little role to
play in climate change mitigation, and tackling
adaptation in the absence of international
cooperation will be extremely difficult and
limited. The long-term implications for Kiribati of
a failure of global governance and international
cooperation are dire.

Foot not es

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Pacific Islands Society | Pacific Security Scholars | September 8, 2014
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i ncl udi ng Hurri cane Sandy, much more
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Pacific Islands Society | Pacific Security Scholars | September 8, 2014
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PO Box 632 | Ebensburg, PA 15931 | USA
843.271.6891 ph web
Domestic Non-Profit Organization
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See Campbel l , J. (2010). Cl i mat e-i nduced
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33 UNHCR, i bi d [vi ].
34 Bronen, R. (2013). Cl i mat e-i nduced
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35 I mmi grat i on and Prot ect i on Tri bunal New
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37 Quot ed i n Uan, L. (2013, February 12).
Vani shi ng homel and l eaves peopl e wi t h
nowhere t o go. Ret ri eved f rom Sydney
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The views expressed are those of the author.