The president of Kiribati has said the low-lying Pacific nation must begin planning to relocate its population in case global warming causes sea levels to rise and swamp the country.
Kiribati President Anote Tong will present his case at a climate change conference on the main island Tarawa this week attended by vulnerable countries in the region and major powers including China, the United States and Japan.
Tong said Kiribati, a former British colony with a population of about 100,000, must prepare for all possible eventualities as climate change threatens the nation, “one of which may be the need to relocate our people”.
“In order to relocate we must begin to address these issues now,” he told Australian state broadcaster ABC Tuesday.
Tong did not mention any potential destinations for the country’s populace but said resettlement would be a long-term process that should be addressed as soon as possible.
“If we know it’s going to happen, we have the time to plan it, then there is no reason why we should not begin planning it now,” he said.
Tong said Kiribati’s terrain, which consists mainly of coral atolls, meant his people would have nowhere to go within their homeland if sea levels rose.
“In some parts of the island you throw a stone and you actually hit the other side of the island, so there is no inland,” he said. “These are the issues and these are things that we want people to be able to appreciate.”
The Kiribati National Council of Churches backed Tong’s plan, saying the international community had a duty to look after those forced from their homes due to climate change, the Pacnews news agency reported.
“We call on all stakeholders in Kiribati, Oceania and the world to renew their commitment to their moral and ethical responsibility to the issue of resettlement of forced climate migrants,” the council’s Temaia MacKenzie said.
The Tarawa meeting aims to find common ground on climate change between vulnerable countries and major polluters ahead of a UN-brokered conference in the Mexican city of Cancun from November 29-December 10.
The Cancun conference follows acrimonious talks in Copenhagen last year which were widely seen as a failure.
Tong said he hoped the Tarawa meeting could help develop the agenda for Cancun, where delegates will discuss an agreement on reducing carbon dioxide emissions to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in December 2012.
He said visiting Kiribati allowed representatives from countries with high greenhouse gas emissions to see the impact of climate change first hand.
“Hopefully this will be an opportunity for, particularly the countries which are making the largest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, to truly appreciate what it is we are talking about,” he said.