It is indeed an honor to address this auspicious occasion on behalf of the government and people of Kiribati, on whose behalf I convey their warm greetings through our Kiribati traditional blessing of peace and security: Kam Na Bane Ni Mauri!
I wish to begin by expressing my deep appreciation to you, Rev. Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, for your vision that has brought us together today, a vision that embraces the whole of humankind, a vision that promotes and supports global peace. For indeed, peace and security are what we all aspire to for our people, for our children, for our grandchildren and their children. I truly believe that the prestigious Sunhak Peace Prize, along with this World Summit on peace, will elevate global thinking, and it is my very dear hope, global action on a challenge that poses the greatest danger to life as we know it now….
The journey that I have taken to advocate on behalf of my people against the biggest security threat facing not only my people, but also the world as a whole, has not been without its challenges….
Perils from tides, winds
My people, living on low-lying atoll islands no higher than 3 meters above sea level, face a very uncertain future, with the very real possibility of loss of life as they know it now, the very real possibility of loss of their identity as a people and as a culture within this century.
We recently concluded a session in our Parliament and, during that time, the bulk of requests [we received] from communities across the nation [asked] what we, as a government, can do to compensate for the loss of food crops, loss of land, loss of drinking water.
We have been experiencing increasingly high tides, [which are] occurring in greater frequency and that have been accompanied with strong winds. Any high tide coupled with strong winds wreaks havoc to our islands, our homes, our villages. Food crops have been destroyed and the fresh water lens (our communities’ source of drinking water) is contaminated by the intruding sea water.
With the cost estimates of damages and reconstruction running into millions of dollars, as a government, we are constantly being swamped with requests for assistance from our communities and our people….
The question that concerns us most deeply is whether we will ever be able to emerge ahead of these escalating challenges or remain forever in the rebuilding and reactionary phase, until our limited resources are fully exhausted and our islands no longer able to sustain and support life as we know it.
It has been 12 years [since my early campaigns for climate change], and in these last few years, I truly believe that we, as a global community, have reached some level of consensus on it… At this juncture, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the leadership and hard work of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose efforts have placed climate change at the top of the global agenda. It is my firm belief that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Kiribati — having experienced first-hand the reality on the ground, the challenges that my people have faced against [the rising] sea level, against the impacts of climate change — has motivated him to support my cause for my people and all those on the frontline of climate change.
His Holiness Pope Francis and President Barack Obama, among other world leaders, have joined the ever-increasing voices advocating against climate change…. What is now required is action — action that will guarantee that the future of our global community and our planet Earth will be secured; action that guarantees that no one will be left behind and, most importantly, urgent action to address the security and existential challenges from climate change for the most vulnerable peoples in frontline states…. Indeed, what are the options available for vulnerable countries like Tuvalu, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Kiribati?
In Kiribati, we have adopted a strategy that would ensure that the country or parts of it remain above sea level in whatever form into the future. Concepts such as floating islands may no longer be mere concepts, but very real technical solutions to this global dilemma. Also, there is the possibility of raising our islands from their current height to heights above the predicted sea-level rises — again, why not? I have had discussions with the government of Korea, which has indicated its willingness to pilot options, to assess the potential technological solutions for raising our islands….
On the issue of relocation, I want to place on record my people’s and my own deep gratitude to the government and the people of Fiji for their most compassionate offer to accommodate our people if, and when, the need arises…. We have no immediate plans to migrate en masse; however, I applaud Fiji for rising to the moral challenge, for it is these selfless acts of goodness that the world today needs.
As of January 1st, this year, 2015, Kiribati closed off approximately 11 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from all forms of commercial fishing activities. The area closed is around 400,000 square kilometers out of the more than 8 million square kilometers of ocean that makes up the whole of Kiribati.
The ultimate closure of the Phoenix Island Protected Area, or PIPA, as it is more commonly known, was not without its challenges, particularly for a nation that relies heavily on the revenues [it receives] from fishing access to its oceans. It was an initiative that initially did not earn me much popularity domestically, and to this day, [it] continues to be a subject of internal debate. However, it was one that I personally considered critical for the conservation of a major food source, not only for my people but also for the world as a whole.
For us, PIPA is an investment in the future. It is our contribution to humanity and the conservation and preservation of marine life—not only for us, but also for the global community and for generations to come. More importantly, it signals our serious commitment to the world as a whole that sacrifices are necessary and can indeed be made to ensure the continued health of our oceans for the common good. That is the core of what I have been advocating: if there is to be any real and tangible impacts on the ground, sacrifices are key….
You may also have heard that I have called for a moratorium on new coal mines and the extension of existing coal mines. Science, as confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dictates that for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change, we must leave the vast bulk of carbon reserves in the ground. Very simply, the world needs to burn less coal each year….
Indeed, as responsible global citizens of this planet that we share as a home, it is our moral obligation to ensure its preservation. For the sake of humanity, let us all move forward together.
With these few words, allow me to conclude by sharing with you all our traditional Kiribati blessings of Te Mauri, Te Raoi, ao Te Tabomoa. May health, peace and prosperity be with us all. Thank you.
• These excerpts are from remarks given by Kiribati President Anote Tong to the World Summit 2015 in Seoul, Korea, provided courtesy of Universal Peace Federation International. Dr. Tong received the Sunhak Peace Prize medal and a cash prize of $500,000 for his leadership in raising awareness about rising sea levels and climate change.
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