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Week of 12.12.08

Transcript: Paradise Lost

BRANCACCIO: There was a jaw-dropping headline that came out of the United Nations climate change conference in Poland this week - a top UN official said that by the middle of this century, 6 million people a year will be displaced around the world by the severe storms and rising sea levels caused by climate change.

It turns out some island nations in the South Pacific are already losing their battle to survive.

We'd all do well to pay attention to what's happening there. Because if the scientists are right, the plight of "climate change refugees" like these will be the next global crisis. My colleagues Mona Iskander and producer Karla Murthy have our report.

ISKANDER: The remote pacific island nation of Kiribati is not the kind of place you stumble upon. You need a good reason to come here. Back in world war two, that reason was strategic. Almost 2000 American soldiers died here fighting the Japanese. Now, most of the foreigners that come to this poor country are aid workers. And as beautiful as the beaches are, only a handful of adventurous tourists make the journey here every year.

But we've come because Kiribati is one the first casualties of climate change.

ANOTE TONG: It's too late for countries like us. If we could achieve zero emission as a planet, still we would go down.

ISKANDER: President Anote Tong never imagined he would be the leader of a country that's literally disappearing. The destructive effects of climate change like rising sea levels are not a distant concern, but are drowning his country right now.

ANOTE TONG: The highest point is, what two meters about sea level. The next highest point is the top of the coconut tree. Is that where we gonna spend the rest of our life?

ISKANDER: President Tong has traveled around the world, sounding the alarm. He now faces a nearly impossible task: to save his country, and get other countries to help him. What does it say to you that the poorest and the smallest countries that are contributing the least to global warming, are the first ones to be affected by it.

ANOTE TONG: I think extremely annoying, I think and—and frustrating, at least. And I—I think we have called on the international communities—from way back to do something about it. And I think the reality is, unless it hits you in the stomach, it means nothing to you. But for those who—for whom it is—this is the first time to visit islands like ours, it will come to them as a real shock.

ISKANDER: To get to Kiribati, we traveled on 3 different planes over 3 days. Flying over the vast Pacific Ocean, it's hard to imagine how anyone came across these islands. Most are just fragile ribbons of land -no higher than 7 feet above sea level.

Kiribati is made up of 33 tiny islands. Put together, they're the size of Baltimore, but they're scattered across the equator over 2 million square miles. Making them specks in the sea. Today, about 100,000 people live there.

We land in Tarawa, the capital. The island is just wide enough for one road. Because it's the only city in Kiribati, it's densely populated.

So to get a sense of what most of the country is like, we traveled by boat to the remote village of Buariki. Here, the pace of life slows to the rhythms of the waves and the wind.

We get a tour from one of the leaders of the village, Tauu Tebibi. He tells us, their land has been passed down from generation to generation over centuries. This is there Maneaba - it's like a town hall and every village has one. But this isn't where it was originally built. Tebibi takes us to where the town hall used to be. Out there.

How far back did the village actually go?

TAAU TEBIBI: That white area there used to be land, it's disappeared. Where the waves are, that was the beginning of our land.

ISKANDER: They had to move 21 homes, a church, even their soccer field, or they would have been swallowed by the sea. If the predictions are right, it will only get worse. The latest scientific reports say that within the century, the sea level will rise between 1 and 2 feet. That means much of this land will be gone

UEANTABO MACKENZIE: I hope that, you know—the islands won't disappear. You know, that's my hope.

ISKANDER: Dr. Ueantabo Mackenzie runs the local branch of the University of South Pacific in Tarawa. He grew up in Kiribati - but lived abroad for many years. Even he has been personally affected by sea level rise. While he was away, the house he grew up in was slowly being washed away by the ocean. By the time he returned, his childhood home was destroyed.

We're sitting here talking about the fact that your country may not be here in a few decades.

UEANTABO MACKENZIE: It's—it's something that it—it—it can't be explained. I—I—I—I've lived and worked outside of Kiribati. But, I always come home, you know? And then when you go back, it's like your spiritual batteries are—are charged. This country has been the basis of my being. And when it's no longer there, you know, it's unthinkable.

ISKANDER: In 2004, as part of a World Bank study, Mackenzie was asked to travel around the country to document changes to the environment and how that's affected people's lives.

UEANTABO MACKENZIE: People were telling me that they were frightened of the changes that were happening. Because, you know, the pace of change is sort of intensified in the last 30 years.

ISKANDER: He says, what the villagers told him was startling. Taro, a main food source, was getting harder to grow. Fish weren't as plentiful. And they were especially worried about what was happening to the coconut trees.

UEANTABO MACKENZIE: Coconut is—is in many parts of the Pacific—it's referred to as the tree of life. In Kiribati every—every part of the coconut is useful from its roots. People use for medicine. The trunk is used for building, and —the leaves are used for thatch and handicrafts. All sorts of things.

ISKANDER: The villagers told him that the coconut trees were dying off - either from salt water incursion or because erosion undermined the root systems. We saw evidence of this all along the shores of Kiribati.

The worst was here - this coconut grove has been contaminated with salt water from a broken sea wall. These lifeless tree stumps stand in a watery grave.

Salt water is also affecting drinking water - the most crucial resource. People get their fresh water through wells, but now, those wells are drying up and getting contaminated with salt water. Scientists have said people on these islands could die of thirst before they drown from sea level rise.

Our translator and guide, Linda Uan, lives in Tarawa.

So you can't use this water anymore?

LINDA UAN: Not for cooking or drinking. It just got salty and it's remained salty.

ISKANDER: Back in Buariki, the elders told us, they are deeply worried by all these changes. They're not just losing their land, but they're way of life.

You told me earlier that you had to move your village because of the erosion. And that the trees are dying. I mean, how does that feel to have to change your lives so drastically?

KAIEKIEKI BATERIKI: What we know is that our ancestors lived the easy life. Food was everywhere and easy to get. Nowadays, it has become difficult, very difficult.

ISKANDER: Over the years, they've had to rely more and more on imported food which is very expensive. And because the land is disappearing, they said they feel overcrowded.

On top of that, dangerous storm surges have become more frequent and severe - crashing into the shore, eroding even more of their precious coastline. To protect themselves - people have built their own makeshift sea walls. But the mining of sand and rocks to build the walls has actually caused even more erosion. It's a losing battle.

But for the oldest of the group, leaving his ancestral grounds is not an option.

BATEE BAIKITEA: I love my land, if it is going to disappear, I will go with my land.

ISKANDER: But could entire islands disappear? That's what we're going to find out today. Riibeta Abeta works on climate change issues for the government. On this early morning, he takes us to see the destruction caused by sea level rise at its worst.

It's been 6 hours since we left land, and it seems we've lost our way. We come across this local fisherman on a traditional sailboat who points us in the right direction.

Abeta taking us to a small island that was once lush with coconut trees, fresh water, and sand banks. But now - this is all that's left. It's usually completely underwater. But at low tide, like now, a small part of it appear above the ocean.

RIIBETA ABETA: As you can see right now we are standing on a rock.

ISKANDER: Abeta tells us that people lived here. It was like any other village. But over the last 40 years, it's been slowly claimed by the salty sea—and that salt water killed everything—transforming it into this barren landscape.

What about for you - I mean, what is it like to see this - it almost looks like the moon.

RIIBETA ABETA: it looks scary to me. You know. When you think of this island - this is what it could be like for all of our islands of Kiribati.

ISKANDER: And that grim future has President Anote Tong very worried.

ANOTE TONG: There was a sense of deep hopelessness for a while. What do we do?

ISKANDER: When he was first elected in 2003, he struggled with that question. It was hard for Tong to believe that his country was actually vanishing. Like everyone else here, he lives modestly... and has a deep love for his land. But Tong, a graduate of the London School of Economics, realized he needed to act fast... and that he couldn't do it alone. So he decided to take his cause to the international stage.

ANOTE TONG AT THE UN: For many years we have tirelessly appealed to this organization to do something about climate change.

ISKANDER: He's appeared at the United Nations three times pleading his case... most recently, this past September.

ANOTE TONG AT THE UN: While the International community continues to point fingers at each other regarding responsibility for and leadership on this issue, our people continue to experience the impact of climate change.

ISKANDER: President Tong wants climate change to be a top priority - on the same level as global terrorism. But he was shocked by the UN's inaction. Just this week, at the United Nations meeting in Poland, countries were still arguing about the economics of cutting emissions.

ANOTE TONG: What's very frustrating is to sit in a meeting of international leaders and have a leader say, "No—no, I cannot do that, because it would affect my economic growth." You can understand how offensive that is. For us, it's not about economic growth. It's about our survival as a nation.

ISKANDER: With or without the help of the international community - Tong says he must deal with the reality of a long term solution.

ANOTE TONG: I can see the possibility of—in 100 years' time, this island still being there. But I think the question that we have to ask, "Will we be able to support the same number of people?" And I can say, almost immediately, that, no. The answer is no.

ISKANDER: After many sleepless nights, wrestling with what to do, he came to a painful decision. Most of his people, he realized, will have to leave Kiribati and find homes in other countries. They will become some of the world's first climate change refugees. It's a term you might start to hear a lot of as the problem of global warming escalates.

The United Nations reports that there will be more than 250 million people displaced by climate change in just the next 50 years. Places like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Egypt, The Bahamas, even parts of the United States, are already at risk.

But President Tong doesn't want his people to become refugees and a burden on other countries. He wants them to leave with skills so they can contribute to society. To do this, he needs countries to help train his people for jobs that are needed abroad.

ANOTE TONG: If I say, you know—"Australia, are you ready to take 100 thousand of our people?" I guarantee you the immediate—answer is no. But if I say—"Are you ready to take 20 of our people who are very good—plumbers?" And the answer will be yes.

ISKANDER: And there's no better place to get leaders on board than the annual Pacific Islands Forum....a meeting of all the Pacific Island nations and the 2 powerhouses of the region, New Zealand and Australia. Last August, it was held on the tiny island nation of Niue.

As the delegations arrive at the airport, they are met by Niuean dancers that perform a traditional war dance. It's basically a form of border security. When the prime minister from Australia accepts the coconut, it symbolizes that he's come in peace.

This year, the main theme of the forum is climate change. A crisis that's not just limited to Kiribati. Other small island countries, like Tuvalu, are also in danger of having their land inundated.

We asked the prime minister of Australia about his policies to deal with the looming crisis of climate change refugees. But he sidestepped around the issue, telling us, there's more that can be done before countries start moving people around.

KEVIN RUDD (PM OF AUSTRALIA): Rather than sort of holding up the white flag and saying all is ruined, all is lost, and there's no way of turning this back, I think its far better that we focus our efforts now, to actually engineer concrete action on the part of the major emitting states.

ISKANDER: Helen Clark of New Zealand also refused to acknowledge climate change refugees as a top priority.

HELEN CLARK (PM OF NEW ZEALAND): I think the first focus has to go on reducing emissions. But from my point of view, it's too early to be putting the white flag up over these unique ways of life, cultures and languages.

ISKANDER: But those answers are not what President Tong wants to hear.

ANOTE TONG: You—you can always that—say that from a distance. I think we want to tell the international community that they have a responsibility, a moral responsibility to deal with us. But to say, "no, it's—you don't raise the white flag," no, that's not a good enough answer.

ISKANDER: At the forum, Tong did convince Australia to begin a temporary work program, similar to the one New Zealand already has with Kiribati. But the workers can only stay part of the year, and will have to return to Kiribati. They'll get some training but not a permanent home.

Still, there have been some success stories. We traveled 2500 miles to New Zealand to meet a few of the lucky families that have left Kiribati. Kaimanga Tenanoa and his family now live in this small cottage just north of Auckland. It's a lot different here than his native home. Sand and coconut trees are replaced by rolling green hills, grazing sheep, and chilly winters.

KAIMANGA TENANOA: In New Zealand it's very cold, yeah? And we try to—we can survive our life too for that.

ISKANDER: Kaimanga left Kiribati over three years ago, and eventually, his wife and family joined him. He says, he came to New Zealand because he felt his home island was in danger.

KAIMANGA TENANOA: I'm afraid of the sea level. That's the one. Because there's no mountain or what else, that we are so afraid of this. But we safe with my family now in New Zealand.

ISKANDER: Kaimanga was one of 75 people that were chosen by lottery to become permanent residents of New Zealand. That's 75 a year from a country of 100,000 people. Although they were sad to leave their country, Kaimanga and his family consider themselves one of the fortunate few.

It's 6 am - and Kaimanga and his wife Tooti are off to work. In order to come to New Zealand, they needed to first find a company to sponsor them. Through relatives, they landed jobs in the glasshouses - or greenhouses of a pepper farm called Southern Paprika. After two years, Kaimanga was promoted, and is now a manager.

There are 60 people from Kiribati that work here. In fact the farm is the largest employer of people from Kiribati in all of New Zealand.

As they tend to the plants, the workers sing folk songs from the home they've left behind. And, like their home, the glasshouses are always warm.

Today, they're pruning the plants and tying the vines. Eventually these pepper plants will grow up the strings until they are ready to be harvested.

Joann McDonald is the administrator at the farm. She says they've been employing people from Kiribati for the last 10 years.

JOANN MCDONALD: Honestly, we would love to employ New Zealanders. But they don't normally stay because it's too hot and they can't handle the conditions in the glasshouse. So, that's why with the Kiribati people living out near the equator, it's perfect conditions. It's like being at home.

ISKANDER: But it hasn't been an easy adjustment. After living close to nature -they must now follow the clock and the dollar.

KAIMANGA TENANOA: In our culture, I think this is—time is not so important. But in New Zealand, oh, I think time is money.

ISKANDER: The owners of Southern Paprika have met with President Tong to find out how they can help Kiribati even more. But as one small company, there's only so much they can do. Joanne MacDonald says New Zealand should be doing more.

JOANN MCDONALD: Personally, I think we should be taking the opportunity now, as a country, and taking responsibility, and slowly trying to get some of them into the country now. But, if we are going to wait until, like, 40 or 50 years, and then have an influx of thousands of unskilled people coming into the country, I mean, it's to our own detriment, isn't it?

ISKANDER: Back in Kiribati, President Tong is in a race against time. He's got to get countries take his people in and he's not just appealing to New Zealand and Australia, but to countries in Europe, and the United States. So far he's had little success.

And there's another challenge at home. Tong also has to convince his own people that migration is inevitable.

LINDA UAN: Migration—I don't even want to think about migration at this stage.

ISKANDER: Our translator and guide, Linda Uan, lives in Tarawa. She says, she never thought much of climate change, until 2005, when a storm surge crashed into her house.

LINDA UAN: It flooded everything.

ISKANDER: And that has never happened before?

LINDA UAN: No, that was the first time. And we hope the last time.

ISKANDER: Even though her own home was almost destroyed by the force of the sea, she still thinks the government should focus on protecting the islands from rising sea levels.

LINDA UAN: I think they could be doing a lot more. At the moment, it's like we're defeated. And I don't think we've even started.

ISKANDER: She points to the idea of adaptation - programs to help communities "adapt" to their changing environments...for instance, building rainwater catchments to store fresh water or teaching people how to build better sea walls. Together, Australia and New Zealand have contributed over 4 million dollars to Kiribati to develop their own adaptation projects. But when we went to visit the office, most of the projects were still in the planning phases... and had no tangible results.

But you have the funds. Is—is it that—that there's not enough aid?

ANOTE TONG: The funds are there, but—what can the funds do? You know, will the funds give us more land? Will the fund—take us away further from the oncoming tide when it does come? No.

ISKANDER: President Tong says adaptation could work in other countries, but in Kiribati, it's just a short term solution and won't solve their ultimate problem of rising sea levels. Yet some like Linda Uan, can't bear to see their home go down without a fight.

LINDA UAN: It's our culture, our lands, it's everything. Everything's going to be lost. How would you take that?

ISKANDER: It's emotional.

LINDA UAN: Losing one's land is emotional, there's no joking way about it; it is emotional.

ISKANDER: It's our last night here and a group of dancers performs a farewell dance for us. It mirrors the environment in which they live. Their delicate movements mimic sea birds...and their striking motions display the strength that's needed to live by nature's whims. It's a dance that's evolved over hundreds of years, and embodies all that might be lost. A people, a land, and their culture.

ANOTE TONG: We are part of the planet that is paying that price. Hopefully, the international community, the world at large will realize that they should not continue what they've been doing. We are the price.

BRANCACCIO: Across the pacific other islands are also taking on the challenge of climate change. In Hawaii, the goal is to become a leader in creating a new model for sustainability. We've put together a web-exclusive story on Hawaii's plans to break the addiction to fossil fuels.

Watch it on our website.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Paradise Lost

Video: Green Hawaii

Video: Washed Up?

Reporter's Notebook: Mona Iskander

Photo Essay: Islands of the South Pacific

Feedback Forum

Update: Paradise Lost, Revisited

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