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Kiribati: A Nation That Cannot Adapt To Climate Change


I live in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island (PEI).  As the name suggests, we are an island province.

Image of eastern Canada.  PEI labelled.  Screen shot from Google Maps.

Image of eastern Canada. PEI labelled. Screen shot from Google Maps.

Of all the Canadian provinces, were are the most vulnerable to climate change.  The increasing sea temperature and acidity threaten our fishing industry.  Lack of winter snow and changes in rain patterns threaten our agricultural industry.  Rising sea levels and storms surges threaten our low-lying infrastructure.

A low-lying bridge in Rustico, PEI, during a 2010 storm surge.

A low-lying bridge in Rustico, PEI, during a 2010 storm surge.

And, our island, being made of soft sandstone, is eroding at an increasing rate.  In the image below, the vertical post the gentleman is standing next to is the well for someone’s home.  Well, it used to be!

On the shore of Tignish, PEI, after the 2010 storm surge.

On the shore of Tignish, PEI, after the 2010 storm surge.

And to make things worse, Eastern Canada is actually sinking into the Earth (a reaction to the loss of ice from the last ice age) although, at a much slower rate than sea levels are rising.

Although all of the impacts are of great concern, we can adapt to all these challenges.  Our fisherman and our farmers can adapt their practices to the changing conditions.  Our infrastructure can be rebuilt to stand higher above the sea.  And our coastal homes can be moved away from the eroding shores.  It will be difficult, but we can adapt.  (In my climate change presentation, I actually make the argument that adaptations such as rebuilding infrastructure would be a great way to stimulate our economy and keep our working men form going to work in the Tar Sands.)

Unfortunately, some places in the world cannot adapt to what climate change has in store for them.  A “perfect” example of this is the island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bass – “bass” like the fish).

A map showing the position of Kiribati.  Image:

A map showing the position of Kiribati. Image:

Photo of one of the islands of Kiribati

Photo of one of the islands of Kiribati

The nation of Kiribati is made of 33 low-lying islands that, at their highest, rise 4 m above sea level.  The entire population lives within 1 km of sea and because of the pancake-like flatness of the islands, any increase in sea level quickly moves the water inland.  As a result, the leaders of Kiribati are looking to move the entire population off of the islands.

To me, this demonstrates the greatest injustice of climate change: the poorest, smallest countries, the ones that have done the least to cause climate change, are the one that will suffer first and suffer the greatest.  To prove my point, in 2005, Kiribati’s carbon emissions were “lower than every other country except one”.  And yet, the people of Kiribati will be the first to lose their country to climate change.

The situation in Kiribati should also cause a very important discussion about what happens to nations like Kiribati whose territory is no longer habitable because of our changing climate.  Do they become refugees?  Do we give them land in another country?  Do they become citizens in another country?

I hope you’ll take a moment to watch the short video below describing the situation in Kiribati.  And, as usual, I welcome you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Florian permalink
    2012/07/15 4:29 am

    How individuals and governments will react to climate change victims/refugees is indeed the big unknown. Though tempting, it is not easy to make out one culprit responsible for climate change, nor is it entirely clear how anthropocentric and other impacts on the climate work together. One thing is for sure, humankind will always find ways to adapt, especially when there is no other choice.

    • 2012/07/15 4:52 am

      I agree that reaction to climate change victims and refugees is a “big unknown”. I remember reading that the president(?) of Kiribati was looking at buying land for his population on another island (Fuji). This may not be an option for every group that is permanently displaced.

      Although I have faith in our ability to adapt, I wish we made a greater effort to mitigate the problem. The temperature increase we are on pace to reach (before the end of the century) may be beyond adaptation, so we have some serious work to do.

  2. Martin Lack permalink
    2012/07/16 6:18 am

    Thanks for expanding upon the problems you face in PEI. That photo of the coastal erosion (with the missing house) is very effective. Given that isostatic rebound adds huge amounts of land area to Finland every year, PEI is presumably the Canadian equivalent of Cornwall in the UK (which is sinking whilst the north of Scotland is rising)?

    Tuvalu and the Maldives I had heard of but, Kiribati I had not. Are Federated provinces such as PEI allowed to joint the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) as interested observers?

  3. Dan permalink
    2013/06/27 6:39 pm

    While I agree about the need to stop the use of carbon based fuels and help the environment to recover, still no one is to say that this is not a natural process, they have been eroding away for hundreds/thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution, one could argue that underwater volcanos such as in Hawaii are also aiding in the rise of the sea level, this is tectonics at work, land will rise and fall completely naturally so why it may be a convenient occurrence for environmentalists I don’t think to solely blame climate change is a fair account of the islands natural geology, although it is clearly tragic to lose such a place and for the people it is truly heart breaking to lose your nation, in some ways these island nations are better off being an overseas territory to another larger nation, that way funds can be pumped in to help save what they can, whilst a massive task it is still possible to save at least some of the islands and thus the country, just my opinion of course.

    • 2013/07/29 6:24 pm

      You said “still no one is to say that this is not a natural process”. Actually, we can say that it isn’t a natural process. Scientists have made thousands of observations, collected millions of data points and the only explanation for this warming is our impact on the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Yes, the climate has changed naturally in the past. However, a) the changes were much slower than today, and b) changes in the past can be attributed to changes in the Earth’s orbit, the Earth’s tilt. The only “forcing” that can explain the current change in man-made greenhouse gases. This debate is over. It should be over. But people continue to make the same unscientific arguments that you have made here. They create doubt. And the only people who gain from that doubt are those that sell us fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity to leave our children a livable climate is closing fast…

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