A Nation Underseas: Climate Change and the Movement of a Nation

Emma Lin Hurlbert 

TL; DR  

In the article: “A Nation Underseas: Climate Change and the Movement of a Nation”, Emma Lin Hurlbert describes the problems facing Pacific Island Countries In the context of climate change and their potential solutions. The article focuses on the Island Nation of Kiribati, which is predicted to be almost entirely below sea levels by 2100, despite being one of the nations least culpable for the climate change now disproportionately affecting them.  

The former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong launched a strategy in 2014 called Migration with Dignity. This strategy challenges the current geopolitical definition of a state, as it includes the movement of both the population and state to a new, undeveloped piece of land purchased from Fiji. Coriolis trade data demonstrates that this locational shift would cause severe strains upon the economy of Kiribati, along with social pressures caused by increased population density and the separation of the people from their ancestral land. Despite these harsh realities, the population was in favor of the move due to their recognition of its inevitability. 

However, this migratory policy was not continued by the conservative new Kiribati president, who believes that Ikiribati’s should “try to isolate [themselves] from the belief that Kiribati will be drowned, [as] the ultimate decision is God’s.” Instead, the new president prefers to invest in raising the land of existing Kiribati land, even though such a strategy will be more expensive and exclusive. Overall, the case of Kiribati leaves many questions unanswered, such as the role of responsible investing in a “disappearing state”. 

 


 

A Nation Underseas: Climate Change and the Movement of a Nation 

By Emma Lin Hurlbert 

Kiribati is a small nation of about 120,000 people living on 32 atolls in the centre of the Pacific Ocean.[1] Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are among the nations experiencing the most rapid and severe effects of climate change, often associated with rising sea levels, salinisation of soil, loss of fresh water sources, and therefore increased food and water insecurity, in addition to a loss of livelihood. In fact, projections show that almost all of the areas currently inhabited in Kiribati will be underwater by 2100, as most of the land is less than 3 meters above sea level.[2] Despite feeling some of the earliest and most profound impacts caused by anthropogenic climate change, the PICs have contributed the least to carbon emissions of any region in the world.[3] The injustice of this harsh reality comes further into focus when we look at national policies and the impacts on individual lives.

As a response to this threat, the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong launched a strategy in 2014 called Migration with Dignity. This strategy would provide a long-term solution to the effects of rising sea levels around the atolls of Kiribati – migration of the country itself. This strategy included shorter term opportunities such as migration schemes to nearby New Zealand and Australia. In the medium term, he sought to improve education and vocational training in Kiribati so that iKiribatis (citizens of Kiribati) that migrated in the coming decades would have an educational level that would be valued in their host countries. And lastly, he purchased a territory of 20km2 on a Fijian island where the nation of Kiribati could move.[4] This last aspect of the strategy is one that would challenge the current geopolitical understanding of state: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and relations with other states.[5] The fate of this “disappearing state”[6] would have challenged at least two of these tenants, a permanent population and a defined territory. This would have been a state within a state that was created by a mutually agreed upon land purchase.

Furthermore, this mass migration would have challenged iKiribatis in many ways. Firstly, the entire economy of Kiribati would have had to be overhauled. None of the previous industries, exports, nor imports could have continued on without significant changes. According to Coriolis trade data, exports in live, fresh caught, and frozen fish make up the overwhelming majority of Kiribati’s exports, as depicted in the graph below. In 2020 the country exported $78.5 million worth of fish. The next highest exported item was oil seeds and soya, which paled in comparison at $1.8 million in 2020. Exporting fish is an industry that is extremely place-based, something not easily transferrable to a new location. Comparatively, the export of services accounts for far less of the national economy, worth only $4,500 in totality in 2020.

Therefore, if the nation of Kiribati moved its location, it is clear that the economy would likely not have survived, much less thrived, at least in the short term.

These changes may have brought shifts in trade agreements, new negotiations, and tariffs. Moreover, the land on Fiji would have had to undergo massive amounts of development in order to be inhabitable for a large amount of the Kiribati population, requiring extensive international financing. Moreover, mass movement onto the Fijian land would have greatly increased the population density. The current population density is 143 people / km2, with cities such as the capital of Tarawa significantly denser.[7] A most of virtually the entire population (though in reality many may have migrated to other countries) to Fiji would have made the density 5,792 people / km2.  This would have left minimal amounts of that land for agriculture, foreshadowing further food insecurity.[8] Families would have had to retrain, re-educate, and find new livelihoods.

Social issues of equality and culture would have also affected the everyday lives of iKiribatis. Worldwide migrants and refugees are met with skepticism and calls to assimilate at the best of times, and violence and discrimination at the worst. Nothing different would have been expected in this case, causing iKiribatis to undergo stressful and traumatic migration experiences. Likely they would experience inequalities within their new territory and unforeseen complications of pioneering the state-within-a-state system. Moreover, many iKiribatis associate their identity with their land and their culture is very embedded in place, making such a mass migration more painful.[9]

Nevertheless, the challenges that the prospect of this migration would have brought were necessary and planning decades in advance was essential, according to the Tong government. The majority of the people of Kiribati seemed to agree that migration would be painful, but would become a necessity in future decades.[10]

However, this plan was short-lived. In 2016 a more conservative president, Taneti Maamau, was elected, as seemed to be the global trend. President Maamau did not continue with the Migration with Dignity strategy. Instead, he infused his strategy with faith, focusing on adaptation on the atolls and economic growth through sectors such as eco-tourism and foreign investment.[11] He famously told the parliament that iKiribatis should “try to isolate [themselves] from the belief that Kiribati will be drowned, [as] the ultimate decision is God’s.”[12] He has invested in public-private partnerships to adapt the habitability of the atolls for a little while longer. For example, he has embarked on an innovative engineering project to raise the elevation of a plot of land enough so that it would be resilient to sea level rises for a couple of centuries to come. However, exploratory projects such as these require large amounts of foreign financial investment and ultimately provide an expensive solution for a relatively small number of iKiribatis.[13]

In essence, the Migration with Dignity strategy was replaced with one that does not provide for the long-term effects of climate change for the entire population, which will ultimately lead to disjointed, chaotic, and unplanned responses to climate impacts. Though the end to this seemingly tragic case study has not yet played out, it does provide a strong example for understanding the interconnectedness of many issues formerly thought of as disparate: trade, investment, geopolitics, local politics, culture, and social inequality. Moving forward, what is the role of responsible investing in a “disappearing state”? What is the responsibility of banks and private companies in supporting iKiribatis? How are stakeholders from all of these sectors collaborating constructively or destructively? These types of multilateral and multisectoral integrations will only become more important as these issues become more intertwined.


[1] Jakob Schou Kupferberg, “Migration and Dignity – Relocation and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change Displacement in the Pacific – a Human Rights Perspective,” The International Journal of Human Rights, March 4, 2021, 1–26, https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2021.1889515

[2] Lacey Allgood and Karen E. McNamara, “Climate-Induced Migration: Exploring Local Perspectives in Kiribati,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 38, no. 3 (2017): 371, https://doi.org/10.1111/sjtg.12202

[3] Kupferberg, “Migration and Dignity – Relocation and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change Displacement in the Pacific – a Human Rights Perspective,” 9.

[4] Kupferberg, “Migration and Dignity – Relocation and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change Displacement in the Pacific – a Human Rights Perspective.”

[5] “International Law – States in International Law | Britannica,” accessed July 12, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/international-law/States-in-international-law

[6] Kupferberg, “Migration and Dignity – Relocation and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change Displacement in the Pacific – a Human Rights Perspective,” 7.

[7] Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères, “Présentation de Kiribati,” France Diplomatie – Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères, accessed July 16, 2021, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/dossiers-pays/kiribati/presentation-de-kiribati/

[8] Kupferberg, “Migration and Dignity – Relocation and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change Displacement in the Pacific – a Human Rights Perspective,” 13–14.

[9] Kupferberg, “Migration and Dignity – Relocation and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change Displacement in the Pacific – a Human Rights Perspective”; Allgood and McNamara, “Climate-Induced Migration”; “Fiji Supports Kiribati On Sea Level Rise” (Republic of Kiribati, February 11, 2014), http://www.climate.gov.ki/category/action/relocation/

[10] Allgood and McNamara, “Climate-Induced Migration,” 379.

[11] Kupferberg, “Migration and Dignity – Relocation and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change Displacement in the Pacific – a Human Rights Perspective.”

[12] Caleb Ray, “Rejecting Reality: Kiribati’s Shifting Climate Change Policies,” The University of Texas at Austin: Climate Security in Oceania (blog), December 31, 2019, https://sites.utexas.edu/climatesecurity/2019/12/31/kiribati-policy-shift/.

[13] Kupferberg, “Migration and Dignity – Relocation and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change Displacement in the Pacific – a Human Rights Perspective.”

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