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A. Tong: Address to World Summit 2015

Address to World Summit 2015, Seoul, Korea, August 27 to 31, 2015

Rev. Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon; Sunhak Peace Prize Foundation chair and members; fellow

awardee Dr. Modadugu Vijay Gupta; excellencies; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen,

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.

Climate Change—the Biggest Security Threat Facing Mankind

Ladies and Gentlemen,

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.

I remember very clearly my early campaigns on climate change. Those [campaigns], more than ten years past, required a lot of inner strength, a lot of patience and a lot of conviction that there is human compassion, human kindness and human feelings for our fellow human being. For those of you who [this is the first time for you to] see me in person now, you would not have known that I used to have black hair—now I hope the grey hairs that I have accumulated over these last twelve years will not have been for naught.

I was asked, or more to the point admonished, if I was a scientist and where the data was, the scientific formula that would back up my belief that climate change was indeed happening. I answered simply that I was not a scientist, but that I felt for my people and, more importantly, that I was experiencing, with my people, what was happening, and the impacts [it was having] on our livelihood, on our homes.

Science in those days was as skeptical as the rest of the world [about climate change].

Ladies and Gentlemen,

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), 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. These costs will definitely escalate in the future and will continue to increase pressure on our already limited national resources and redirect them away from ever pressing national priorities. The question which concerns us most deeply is whether we will ever be able to emerge ahead of these escalating challenges or remain forever in the re-building 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.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It has been twelve 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—and it is indeed encouraging to note the growing momentum in the level of global acknowledgement of the issue of climate change. At this juncture, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the leadership and hard work of UN 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, US President Barack Obama among other world leaders, have joined the ever-increasing voices advocating against climate change. Yes, there is acknowledgement, and yes, there is commitment at the global level to address this issue. 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.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My people continue to ask me: what is it that they can expect from the global community. Will they have a future as an I-Kiribati? Will they be able to remain on their homeland, their ancestral land? It is a plea, a cry for help that I cannot ignore nor can I turn my back to.

Can we, as leaders, return today to our people and be confident enough to say, ‘YES, your existence, your lives are important and we, your leaders of the global community, have formulated options to ensure that no matter how high the sea rises, no matter how severe the storms get, there are credible technical solutions to raise your islands and your homes, and the necessary resources available to ensure that all will be in place before it is too late.’

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, who has indicated their willingness to pilot options, to assess the potential technological solutions for raising our islands.

It is my very strong conviction that in these trying times, extraordinary and unconventional solutions will be key! To forsake those of us at the frontline and to allow this planet, our one and only home, to perish, without even trying, without even making that additional necessary effort, would be to admit defeat.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The options are not easy for a nation, a home that may no longer be able to support life as we know it now and in the very near future. Furthermore, as a government, we have also acknowledged the reality that whatever measures we take to remain above the rising seas and [to protect ourselves from more] severe weather conditions, we will not be able to accommodate the current level of the population. We do not have the resources or the capabilities to be able to do so.

Relocation, however reluctant my people and I are [to pursue this option], must therefore be part of our strategy for adaptation. For us, this involves the preparation of our people for such a possibility. The possibility that they may need to find a new home, and should they ever need to, they would be able to do so on merit, as people with dignity and confidence, in their new environment.

On the issue of relocation, I do 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. I am very mindful of the cultural and political sensitivities involved [in relocating], and I wish to assure that these are important considerations that my government respects and takes seriously. 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.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Indeed, it is all about making sacrifices today to ensure a safe and secure future for our children, our grandchildren and their children.

As of January 1st, this year, 2015, Kiribati closed off approximately 11% 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.

PIPA motivated a global movement for ocean conservation, which, while it is encouraging, also raises the very simple question of why, as fellow human beings, we are very easily motivated to save the non-human species, yet are very reluctant to save our fellow global citizens.

[When I] faced a great deal of skepticism in my past advocacies, I compared my plight with that of the artic polar bears; they face the same challenges as those of my people: the very real possibility that their natural habitat may no longer exist within our lifetime. The polar bears, like my people and those on the frontline of climate change, have a right to a safe and secure future—we all have a right to a safe and secure future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

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 IPCC, 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.

It may be a sacrifice for some of us, but as I will continue to advocate, some sacrifices are necessary and can and should be made for the common good, for the better good.

It is my sincere hope that you, who are with us today, will add your voice and your support to this call for no more new coal mines and to halt the further extension of existing coal mines. Should the world as a whole support this call ahead of the upcoming COP 21 [climate conference] in Paris, it could very well determine a very positive and historic outcome in Paris, but more so, it is my very sincere hope that it will catalyze the required resources and action from those with the capacity and capability to do so.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Time is of the essence for those of us at the frontline of climate change, for those of us most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

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. 

For more information about the World Summit, click here.