Anote Tong: My country will be underwater soon -- unless we work together Nov 2015
Chris Anderson: Perhaps we could start by just telling us about your country. It's three dots there on the globe. Those dots are pretty huge. I think each one is about the size of California. Tell us about Kiribati.
Anote Tong: Well, let me first begin by saying how deeply grateful I am for this opportunity to share my story with people who do care. I think I've been sharing my story with a lot of people who don't care too much. But Kiribati is comprised of three groups of islands: the Gilbert Group on the west, we have the Phoenix Islands in the middle, and the Line Islands in the east. And quite frankly, Kiribati is perhaps the only country that is actually in the four corners of the world, because we are in the Northern Hemisphere, in the Southern Hemisphere, and also in the east and the west of the International Date Line. These islands are entirely made up of coral atolls, and on average about two meters above sea level. And so this is what we have. Usually not more than two kilometers in width. And so, on many occasions, I've been asked by people, "You know, you're suffering, why don't you move back?" They don't understand. They have no concept of what it is that's involved. With the rising sea, they say, "Well, you can move back." And so this is what I tell them. If we move back, we will fall off on the other side of the ocean. OK? But these are the kinds of issues that people don't understand.
CA: So certainly this is just a picture of fragility there. When was it that you yourself realized that there might be impending peril for your country?
AT: Well, the story of climate change has been one that has been going on for quite a number of decades. And when I came into office in 2003, I began talking about climate change at the United Nations General Assembly, but not with so much passion, because then there was still this controversy among the scientists whether it was human-induced, whether it was real or it wasn't. But I think that that debate was fairly much concluded in 2007 with the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, which made a categorical statement that it is real, it's human-induced, and it's predicting some very serious scenarios for countries like mine. And so that's when I got very serious. In the past, I talked about it. We were worried. But when the scenarios, the predictions came in 2007, it became a real issue for us.
CA: Now, those predictions are, I think, that by 2100, sea levels are forecast to rise perhaps three feet. There's scenarios where it's higher than that, for sure, but what would you say to a skeptic who said, "What's three feet? You're on average six feet above sea level. What's the problem?"
AT: Well, I think it's got to be understood that a marginal rise in sea level would mean a loss of a lot of land, because much of the land is low. And quite apart from that, we are getting the swells at the moment. So it's not about getting two feet. I think what many people do not understand is they think climate change is something that is happening in the future. Well, we're at the very bottom end of the spectrum. It's already with us. We have communities who already have been dislocated. They have had to move, and every parliament session, I'm getting complaints from different communities asking for assistance to build seawalls, to see what we can do about the freshwater lens because it's being destroyed, and so in my trips to the different islands, I'm seeing evidence of communities which are now having to cope with the loss of food crops, the contamination of the water lenses, and I see these communities perhaps leaving, having to relocate, within five to 10 years.
CA: And then, I think the country suffered its first cyclone, and this is connected, yes? What happened here?
AT: Well, we're on the equator, and I'm sure many of you understand that when you're on the equator, it's supposed to be in the doldrums. We're not supposed to get the cyclones. We create them, and then we send them either north or south.
But they aren't supposed to come back. But for the first time, at the beginning of this year, the Cyclone Pam, which destroyed Vanuatu, and in the process, the very edges of it actually touched our two southernmost islands, and all of Tuvalu was underwater when Hurricane Pam struck. But for our two southernmost islands, we had waves come over half the island, and so this has never happened before. It's a new experience. And I've just come back from my own constituency, and I've seen these beautiful trees which had been there for decades, they've been totally destroyed. So this is what's happening, but when we talk about the rising sea level, we think it's something that happens gradually. It comes with the winds, it comes with the swells, and so they can be magnified, but what we are beginning to witness is the change in the weather pattern, which is perhaps the more urgent challenge that we will face sooner than perhaps the rising sea level.
CA: So the country is already seeing effects now. As you look forward, what are your options as a country, as a nation?
AT: Well, I've been telling this story every year. I think I visit a number of -- I've been traveling the world to try and get people to understand. We have a plan, we think we have a plan. And on one occasion, I think I spoke in Geneva and there was a gentleman who was interviewing me on something like this, and I said, "We are looking at floating islands," and he thought it was funny, but somebody said, "No, this is not funny. These people are looking for solutions." And so I have been looking at floating islands. The Japanese are interested in building floating islands.
But, as a country, we have made a commitment that no matter what happens, we will try as much as possible to stay and continue to exist as a nation. What that will take, it's going to be something quite significant, very, very substantial. Either we live on floating islands, or we have to build up the islands to continue to stay out of the water as the sea level rises and as the storms get more severe. But even that, it's going to be very, very difficult to get the kind of resourcing that we would need.
CA: And then the only recourse is some form of forced migration.
AT: Well, we are also looking at that because in the event that nothing comes forward from the international community, we are preparing, we don't want to be caught like what's happening in Europe. OK? We don't want to mass migrate at some point in time. We want to be able to give the people the choice today, those who choose and want to do that, to migrate. We don't want something to happen that they are forced to migrate without having been prepared to do so. Of course, our culture is very different, our society is very different, and once we migrate into a different environment, a different culture, there's a whole lot of adjustments that are required.
CA: Well, there's forced migration in your country's past, and I think just this week, just yesterday or the day before yesterday, you visited these people. What happened here? What's the story here?
AT: Yes, and I'm sorry, I think somebody was asking why we were sneaking off to visit that place. I had a very good reason, because we have a community of Kiribati people living in that part of the Solomon Islands, but these were people who were relocated from the Phoenix Islands, in fact, in the 1960s. There was serious drought, and the people could not continue to live on the island, and so they were moved to live here in the Solomon Islands. And so yesterday it was very interesting to meet with these people. They didn't know who I was. They hadn't heard of me. Some of them later recognized me, but I think they were very happy. Later they really wanted to have the opportunity to welcome me formally. But I think what I saw yesterday was very interesting because here I see our people. I spoke in our language, and of course they spoke back, they replied, but their accent, they are beginning not to be able to speak Kiribati properly. I saw them, there was this lady with red teeth. She was chewing betel nuts, and it's not something we do in Kiribati. We don't chew betel nuts. I met also a family who have married the local people here, and so this is what is happening. As you go into another community, there are bound to be changes. There is bound to be a certain loss of identity, and this is what we will be looking for in the future if and when we do migrate.
CA: It must have been just an extraordinarily emotional day because of these questions about identity, the joy of seeing you and perhaps an emphasized sense of what they had lost. And it's very inspiring to hear you say you're going to fight to the end to try to preserve the nation in a location.
AT: This is our wish. Nobody wants ever to leave their home, and so it's been a very difficult decision for me. As a leader, you don't make plans to leave your island, your home, and so I've been asked on a number of occasions, "So how do you feel?" And it doesn't feel good at all. It's an emotional thing, and I've tried to live with it, and I know that on occasions, I'm accused of not trying to solve the problem because I can't solve the problem. It's something that's got to be done collectively.
Climate change is a global phenomenon, and as I've often argued, unfortunately, the countries, when we come to the United Nations -- I was in a meeting with the Pacific Island Forum countries where Australia and New Zealand are also members, and we had an argument. There was a bit of a story in the news because they were arguing that to cut emissions, it would be something that they're unable to do because it would affect the industries. And so here I was saying, OK, I hear you, I understand what you're saying, but try also to understand what I'm saying because if you do not cut your emissions, then our survival is on the line. And so it's a matter for you to weigh this, these moral issues. It's about industry as opposed to the survival of a people.
CA: You know, I ask you yesterday what made you angry, and you said, "I don't get angry." But then you paused. I think this made you angry.
AT: I'd refer you to my earlier statement at the United Nations. I was very angry, very frustrated and then depressed. There was a sense of futility that we are fighting a fight that we have no hope of winning. I had to change my approach. I had to become more reasonable because I thought people would listen to somebody who was rational, but I remain radically rational, whatever that is.
CA: Now, a core part of your nation's identity is fishing. I think you said pretty much everyone is involved in fishing in some way.
AT: Well, we eat fish every day, every day, and I think there is no doubt that our rate of consumption of fish is perhaps the highest in the world. We don't have a lot of livestock, so it's fish that we depend on.
CA: So you're dependent on fish, both at the local level and for the revenues that the country receives from the global fishing business for tuna, and yet despite that, a few years ago you took a very radical step. Can you tell us about that? I think something happened right here in the Phoenix Islands.
AT: Let me give some of the background of what fish means for us. We have one of the largest tuna fisheries remaining in the world. In the Pacific, I think we own something like 60 percent of the remaining tuna fisheries, and it remains relatively healthy for some species, but not all. And Kiribati is one of the three major resource owners, tuna resource owners. And at the moment, we have been getting something like 80 to 90 percent of our revenue from access fees, license fees.
CA: Of your national revenue.
AT: National revenue, which drives everything that we do in governments, hospitals, schools and what have you. But we decided to close this, and it was a very difficult decision. I can assure you, politically, locally, it was not easy, but I was convinced that we had to do this in order to ensure that the fishery remains sustainable. There had been some indications that some of the species, in particular the bigeye, was under serious threat. The yellowfin was also heavily fished. Skipjack remains healthy. And so we had to do something like that, and so that was the reason I did that. Another reason why I did that was because I had been asking the international community that in order to deal with climate change, in order to fight climate change, there has got to be sacrifice, there has got to be commitment. So in asking the international community to make a sacrifice, I thought we ourselves need to make that sacrifice. And so we made the sacrifice. And forgoing commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands protected area would mean a loss of revenue. We are still trying to assess what that loss would be because we actually closed it off at the beginning of this year, and so we will see by the end of this year what it means in terms of the lost revenue.
CA: So there's so many things playing into this. On the one hand, it may prompt healthier fisheries. I mean, how much are you able to move the price up that you charge for the remaining areas?
AT: The negotiations have been very difficult, but we have managed to raise the cost of a vessel day. For any vessel to come in to fish for a day, we have raised the fee from -- it was $6,000 and $8,000, now to $10,000, $12,000 per vessel day. And so there's been that significant increase. But at the same time, what's important to note is, whereas in the past these fishing boats might be fishing in a day and maybe catch 10 tons, now they're catching maybe 100 tons because they've become so efficient. And so we've got to respond likewise. We've got to be very, very careful because the technology has so improved. There was a time when the Brazilian fleet moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They couldn't. They started experimenting if they could, per se. But now they've got ways of doing it, and they've become so efficient.
CA: Can you give us a sense of what it's like in those negotiations? Because you're up against companies that have hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, essentially. How do you hold the line? Is there any advice you can give to other leaders who are dealing with the same companies about how to get the most for your country, get the most for the fish? What advice would you give?
AT: Well, I think we focus too often on licensing in order to get the rate of return, because what we are getting from license fees is about 10 percent of the landed value of the catch on the side of the wharf, not in the retail shops. And we only get about 10 percent. What we have been trying to do over the years is actually to increase our participation in the industry, in the harvesting, in the processing, and eventually, hopefully, the marketing. They're not easy to penetrate, but we are working towards that, and yes, the answer would be to enhance. In order to increase our rate of return, we have to become more involved. And so we've started doing that, and we have to restructure the industry. We've got to tell these people that the world has changed. Now we want to produce the fish ourselves.
CA: And meanwhile, for your local fishermen, they are still able to fish, but what is business like for them? Is it getting harder? Are the waters depleted? Or is that being run on a sustainable basis?
AT: For the artisanal fishery, we do not participate in the commercial fishing activity except only to supply the domestic market. The tuna fishery is really entirely for the foreign market, mostly here in the US, Europe, Japan. So I am a fisherman, very much, and I used to be able to catch yellowfin. Now it's very, very rare to be able to catch yellowfin because they are being lifted out of the water by the hundreds of tons by these purse seiners.
CA: So here's a couple of beautiful girls from your country. I mean, as you think about their future, what message would you have for them and what message would you have for the world?
AT: Well, I've been telling the world that we really have to do something about what is happening to the climate because for us, it's about the future of these children. I have 12 grandchildren, at least. I think I have 12, my wife knows.
And I think I have eight children. It's about their future. Every day I see my grandchildren, about the same age as these young girls, and I do wonder, and I get angry sometimes, yes I do. I wonder what is to become of them. And so it's about them that we should be telling everybody, that it's not about their own national interest, because climate change, regrettably, unfortunately, is viewed by many countries as a national problem. It's not. And this is the argument we got into recently with our partners, the Australians and New Zealanders, because they said, "We can't cut any more." This is what one of the leaders, the Australian leader, said, that we've done our part, we are cutting back. I said, What about the rest? Why don't you keep it? If you could keep the rest of your emissions within your boundaries, within your borders, we'd have no question. You can go ahead as much as you like. But unfortunately, you're sending it our way, and it's affecting the future of our children. And so surely I think that is the heart of the problem of climate change today.
We will be meeting in Paris at the end of this year, but until we can think of this as a global phenomenon, because we create it, individually, as nations, but it affects everybody else, and yet, we refuse to do anything about it, and we deal with it as a national problem, which it is not -- it is a global issue, and it's got to be dealt with collectively.
CA: People are incredibly bad at responding to graphs and numbers, and we shut our minds to it. Somehow, to people, we're slightly better at responding to that sometimes. And it seems like it's very possible that your nation, despite, actually because of the intense problems you face, you may yet be the warning light to the world that shines most visibly, most powerfully. I just want to thank you, I'm sure, on behalf of all of us, for your extraordinary leadership and for being here.
Mr. President, thank you so much.
AT: Thank you.