For many people climate change is a hazy “out there” phenomenon that awaits us in some distant future world.

For Hawaii’s nearest neighbor, the Republic of Kiribati, the future is now, as sea-level rise threatens the very existence of this island nation.

On March 13th President Anote Tong of the Independent and Sovereign Nation of Kiribati honored the East-West Center and University of Hawaii at Manoa with his first official visit, and a public lecture on climate change.

My classmates and I were excited just to be there, and waited eagerly as President Tong stepped up to the podium. His voice rang out in a room full of students, teachers, and community leaders. The President explained that the ocean has been encroaching on Kiribati’s 33 atoll islands, all of which sit less than 2 meters above sea-level.

His people face dire circumstances caused by greenhouse gas emissions already present in the atmosphere, resulting in the environmental changes they are experiencing today.

While the international community remains divided about global warming, the Republic of Kiribati is living its reality. The rising sea has already overtaken entire villages, contaminated freshwater resources, and invaded the landscape — rendering once farmable land useless.

With a population of 108,000 people, dwindling landmass, and its food security threatened, it is estimated that the Kiribati islands will no longer be able to sustain the native population, and may be submerged in just 50 years time.

Faced with this harsh reality President Tong spoke candidly about ensuring the survival of his people, and creating strategies to relocate the people of Kiribati with both dignity and pride.

President Tong has developed programs to train and educate much of the population as skilled laborers, so that they will have a choice in their migration, and not bear the added burden of being labeled “climate refugees.”

Both Fiji and Australia are partnering with Kiribati to help with this transition. Kiribati has already bought 6,000 hectares of land in Fiji for food security, and President Epeli Nailatikau has generously promised that the Kiribati people will always have a home in Fiji.

Many Kiribati people have already begun to relocate and build new lives in Australia. President Tong is also looking at other alternatives to ensure the resilience of his people, including Japanese-engineered floating islands, and the fortification of at least one island so that the nation may always have a piece of home.

President Tong is faced with decisions no leader would ever want to contemplate. How does one create a new homeland? How do you relocate an entire people with dignity? How do you maintain the essence of one’s culture, language and identity in a new land?

In spite of these obstacles, President Tong’s tone was far from despairing, but was rather an inspiring and insightful call to action. His talk illuminated the fact that climate change is not a legal or political issue, but a human issue, one that will test the bounds of our empathy and compassion globally.

Today the Republic of Kiribati is at the forefront of climate change, but in 20 years it will be someone and somewhere else, and in 50 years, it will be yet another place and peoples. As a senior in Geography at UH Manoa, I am all too aware that we are standing on the precipice of a changing climate.

We all have a choice in what kind of world will unfold this century. How we choose to act now will undoubtedly set the precedent for future lives and cultures.

About the author: Rachel Goldberg is a Senior at the University of Hawaii’s Geography Department. She is passionate about many things including biodiversity conservation, indigenous resource management, and food justice.

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