|It's gettin' hot in here|
“”For us climate change is not an event in the future. It's an event that we're dealing with now. We're not talking about reducing carbon emissions because we're already beyond that stage. What we need is urgent action to address what we are facing at the moment.
|—Anote Tong, President of Kiribati 2003-2016|
The Republic of Kiribati, pronounced Ki-ri-bas and not Ki-ri-bah-tee,[note 1] is a country in the middle of the Pacific that is composed of thirty-two atolls and one raised coral island scattered across three and a half million square miles of ocean. One island, Tarawa Atoll, contains over half of Kiribati's population. It is most noticeable on a map for the way it heavily distorts the International Date Line so the entire country is west of the line; this makes the Line Islands the first place on Earth to experience each new day. Having exhausted most of its phosphate supplies, it is one of the poorest countries in the world and is heavily dependent on foreign aid. However, that may soon be the least of their problems.
It is unclear when the islands were first settled, as estimates go anywhere from 3000 BCE to 1300 CE, but it is known that the first group of people to arrive were Austronesians. Later, settlers from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji added Polynesian and Melanesian aspects to the culture. Later, the islands became divided, with the northern islands being ruled by chiefs and the southern islands being led by councils of elders, although the more egalitarian island of Tabiteuea was more neutral (its name means "no chiefs allowed"). This led to a period of civil war; warriors would wield spears with shark teeth attached and wear armor made of the fiber of coconuts.
European ships had visited Kiribati during the 17th and 18th centuries during circumnavigations of the world. In 1788, the British captain Thomas Gilbert visited Tarawa; Kiribati is named after the islanders' pronunciation of his name. The British took little interest in the islands until 1886, when they and Germany decided to partition the islands in the central Pacific Ocean; the British got the Gilbert Islands while the Germans got Nauru. Six years later, they became an official British protectorate. Their second resident commissioner, William Telfer Campbell, became controversial due to accusations of forced labor from the islanders. In 1900, Banaba, the only part of Kiribati that isn't an atoll, was added to the protectorate due to its phosphate[note 2] deposits; the phosphate mining would strip out 90% of Banaba's surface by 1979.
The Northern Line Islands were added to the colony in 1919, and the Phoenix Islands in 1937. The Phoenix Islands were part of a scheme by the British to enhance their power against American encroachment in guano-rich islands of the Pacific. They relocated islanders from the Gilbert Islands to the uninhabited Phoenix Islands, but a combination of droughts, supply problems, and the outbreak of World War II caused the project to fail. Today, only 41 people live in the Phoenix Islands, making them less populated than even the Pitcairn Islands. The U.S. ended up encroaching on the Phoenix Islands and Line Islands anyway, and claimed both groups of islands; this dispute was solved in 1979, in which the U.S. recognized all islands as belonging to Kiribati except for Howland Island and Baker Island, both of which are still a part of the United States Minor Outlying Islands to this day.
Like most of the Pacific islands, Kiribati got hit by the outbreak of WWII. Japan took the northern Gilbert Islands, including the populated island of Tarawa, shortly after their attack on Pearl Harbor. Two years later, the islands were the site of the Battle of Tarawa. The Japanese fighters fought to the last man, but the U.S. were able to take the island within three days; the island was an important stepping stone on the way to the Northern Mariana Islands, which the U.S. wanted to take due to their proximity to Japan and the Philippines. After WWII, the islands were returned to the British, and Kiritimati[note 3] Atoll was used as a nuclear testing site. The Ellice Islands broke free from the rest of the territory in 1976, and two years later gained independence as Tuvalu. One year after that, the rest of the islands gained independence as Kiribati.
The impending apocalypse
Kiribati consists almost entirely of atolls (as well as one island that was torn up by all the phosphate mining). Basically, an atoll is an inactive volcano that, after millions of years of erosion, has collapsed and is now just a narrow ring being held together by coral. Because atolls are just barely above sea level and are also heavily dependent on coral, they are the most vulnerable parts of the world to the rising sea levels caused by climate change. Already, several villages have flooded to the point that they are no longer inhabitable. Kiribati's leaders have acknowledged that Kiribati is no longer safe due to climate change, and urge its residents to leave as soon as possible.
In 2014, Kiribati bought land in Fiji, so that the islands can have more food security as floods and storms destroy more and more of Kiribati's farmland. Kiribati has been petitioning Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji for years to allow its "climate refugees" to move there when the islands become uninhabitable. In 2020, a landmark UN Human Rights Committee ruling declared that a nation cannot kick out someone who is fleeing somewhere that climate change makes uninhabitable, although the ruling forced the person who moved to New Zealand back to Kiribati because they felt that there were "significant protection measures" in Kiribati. Regardless, it would still be very difficult to get a country to accept so many refugees, as shown by the Syrian and Rohingya crises, which leaves the future of Kiribati's over 100,000 residents uncertain.
"It's not sinking!"
Despite an obvious crisis occurring right now, climate deniers still find a way to deny that there is a crisis happening. Take this article, for instance, written by James Agresti, the founder of "Just Facts", a think tank that claims to be nonpartisan but has ties to the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education.[note 4] It claims that rather than sinking, the islands of Kiribati are instead growing in size, and says "Journalists and activists frequently point to short-term or local trends as proof that humans are causing harmful changes in the earth’s climate, but long-term, inclusive data often shows that these changes are well within the bounds of natural variation." It is true that many atolls are increasing in land size, partially due to human activity and partially due to sediment from the coral reef. However, the rising sea levels will eventually outpace the buildup, and that's not even getting into the increasing acidification of the ocean and the subsequent bleaching and destruction of coral... which, you know, it the reason why the islands are growing in the first place. So yeah, this claim is bullshit.
Last home of the Romanovs?
Anton Bakov is an eccentric Russian millionaire and monarchist who dreams of restoring the Romanov throne. To that end, he tried to lease three uninhabited atolls from Kiribati (after trying and failing in Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, and Antigua and Barbuda). He planned to set up Prince Karl Emich of Leiningen, the great-great-grandson of Alexander II of Russia, as the heir to the Romanov line, and build a bunch of hotels and fish processing plants on the islands. For whatever reason, the government of Kiribati rejected his offer, and now he is trying to work out a deal with the government of The Gambia.
- The "ti" in the Gilbertese language being pronounced as an S
- Basically, valuable bird poop that is used as fertilizer
- pronounced "Christmas"
- And not to poison the well further, he also wrote "Rational Conclusions", a book claiming factual support for god, as well as once claiming that 5.7 million illegal immigrants voted in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
- 'Our entire survival is at stake': Kiribati president Anote Tong calls for international community to deliver on climate funding pledge, Australia Network News 10 Jul. 2014
- Denise Chow, Three islands disappeared in the past year. Is climate change to blame?, NBC News 9 Jun. 2019
- Alex Pashley, Kiribati president: Climate-induced migration is 5 years away, Climate Change News 18 Feb. 2016
- Kiribati buys a piece of Fiji, climate.gov.ki
- UN human rights ruling could boost climate change asylum claims, UN News, 21 Jan. 2020
- James Agresti, Foundation for Economic Education
- Just Facts, Media Bias/Fact Check
- Rasha Aridi, This Pacific Island Is Both Sinking and Growing, Smithsonian Magazine 9 Dec. 2020
- Eleanor Ainge Roy, Russian millionaire details plans for new Romanov empire on Pacific islands, The Guardian, 6 Feb. 2017
- Kiribati rejects Russian's 'Romanov revival' plan, BBC News 27 Feb. 2019