Mid-Pacific Islands Seek Science Diplomacy to Deal with Rising Seas

Science Diplomacy at Work to Help Isolated Island Atoll of Kiribati Survive, Preserve Its Culture as Sea Levels Threaten Its Existence
The American Association for the Advancement of Science and The World Academy of Sciences host science diplomacy courses in Trieste, Italy to help nation’s, such as the Kiribati atolls, confront rising sea levels. | Paola Di Bella/TWAS

The Republic of Kiribati is currently facing one of the cruelest realities imaginable: Within 100 years, rising oceans will swallow up the islands that comprise its land, leaving 110,000 citizens without a home. And now they are, as a people, engaged in a fight for survival.

Kiribati is a mid-Pacific nation of 34 islands, mostly ring-shaped atolls that are no more than a few feet above sea level. The islands scattered across some 3,000 miles from west to east, extending into all four hemispheres. It provides the world with roughly 60% of its tuna and is home to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the world’s second biggest oceanic preserve.

The impact of climate change now poses an immediate threat to this beautiful nation and its wealth of natural and cultural resources. “This country is going to be the first of one or two countries that’s going to be underwater because of sea-level rise,” says Greg Stone, chief scientist and executive vice president at Conservation International and one of the government of Kiribati’s science advisers. “To me it’s one of the most important moral issues of our time.”

In a keynote presentation at the AAAS-TWAS Summer Course in Science Diplomacy, Stone and Christine Greene, Kiribati’s honorary counsel to the United States, explored how science diplomacy could help build consensus that the world has an interest – and an obligation – to help protect the remote and far-reaching island nation.

The science diplomacy course is the fourth organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and The World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy. Held August 21-25, it convened 45 scientists and government officials from 18 countries including Egypt, Indonesia, Italy, Nepal and Sri Lanka – all welcomed by three officials: Mahlet Mesfin, deputy director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; Mohamed Hassan, interim executive director of TWAS; and Romain Murenzi, director of the UNESCO Natural Sciences Sector Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building.

During the week-long course, participants are probing the complex workings and potential value of science diplomacy for addressing global challenges and improving relations among nations.

Stone, a marine scientist, made helping the Kiribati (pronounced KEER-ih-bahss) people a personal mission after visiting there for the first time in 2000. Already, he said, hundreds of homes have been washed away – and sea levels continue to rise. “It really is like burning your neighbor’s house down by accident, and the next morning you see them out on the street with their bags and you say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. What are you going to do now?’” said Stone. “That’s been the response of the international community.”

Fiji, another developing nation, is the only country that has shown a willingness to take in future refugees. Since the disappearance of Kiribati’s islands appears inevitable, those who wish to help have to come up with alternative ways to save its people and preserve its culture. Among ideas being proposed are building artificial platforms to replace the submerged islands, or using local sand and concrete to create temporary floating artificial islands.

With many if not all of Kiribati’s inhabitants likely to be displaced, Greene said education is vital to ensure the world welcomes its residents. And, she said, improved technology is urgently needed to reach that goal.

“Those are our biggest challenges really,” she said. “To educate ourselves to be ready for employment in the outside world so that we’re not refugees. There’s a big effort to educate the entire nation and get them work-ready. And we can do that.”

Even then, since the Kiribati people are likely to find themselves all over the world, maintaining the history of a culture that functions mainly through collective, collaborative storytelling will be difficult. That’s where social media comes into play. With Facebook, already popular among inhabitants, some propose leveraging social media to help preserve the nation’s culture.

“What’s really important in maintaining the culture is the transfer of knowledge from grandparent to grandchild,” Greene said. “Social media is the only way we have of staying together. I left 20 years ago to get an education and never went back. In that time, I’ve had maybe 200 to 300 nieces and nephews I would not know if I did not have Facebook.”

Proposed solutions need to be developed within years. Stone and Greene argue that the islands will be rendered unlivable in as little as 20 years due to constant flooding from storm surges and diminishing fresh water resources. Modelers predict that, possibly by the end of the century, the sea level will rise a meter due to the thermal expansion of the oceans and melting ice, enough to submerge the whole nation.

In response, Greene, Stone and their organization Pacific Rising are advocating something similar to the Marshall Plan, under which the United States made a significant investment to rebuild the countries of Western Europe after World War II. Such an initiative could be developed to support Kiribati and other nations whose existence is threatened. So far, though, few nations have offered help.

Science and environmental conservation provide some hope. The foundation of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area and its accompanying oceanic research provided a way to capture the world’s attention, for example. That began when Stone, after receiving a permit to study the Kiribati waters, returned to Kiribati to share his data on the reefs and wildlife in its water and show how important it was ecologically.

Stone’s willingness to share his findings led the Kiribati people to apply successfully for a global treaty to protect a large area of ocean that surrounds the islands, covering over 154,440 square miles. Today, fishing or interference within the now protected area’s flourishing underwater wildlife is prohibited in the protected area.

Nations such as Italy have made important contributions to support the protected area, they said. The protected area helps support healthy fish stocks in the region, with benefits that extend far beyond the region. The people of Kiribati hope that by giving this gift to the rest of the world, someday the rest of the world will return the favor and help them in their time of need.

“This has become the most important act in the history of marine conservation, given to the world by one of the poorest countries in the world,” said Stone. “That says a lot to me, that leadership in this area was shown at that level.”

[Associated image: Paola Di Bella/TWAS]