Sea, Sky, People
In the language of the I-Kiribati people of Kiribati (key-rah-BAHS), the words for sea, sky, and land rhyme, as their world is very much at the intersection of all three, and tides are the rhythm of their lives. Just as telling, although they have dozens of words for the fruit of a palm tree, they have only one word -- tarawa -- for both land and people. The fate of one is the fate of the other.
|Fifty thousand people share the main island of Kiribati, known simply as Tarawa ("Land"). All of its six square miles are 8 feet or less below sea level. The dark green around the edges are mangroves, a key to the survival of these islands and their Tarawa ("People"). Image and article: Kadir Van Lohuizen and Kennedy Warne, National Geographic|
As with the other tens of thousands of people living on atolls in the warm Pacific, climate change presents an existential crisis for the I-Kiribati. Expertise in fishing developed over three millennia is proving inadequate as rising seas change the habits of the fish in the surrounding seas. Changing hydrology has already meant a changing diet, as traditional varieties of tarot can no longer be grown. Because a warming ocean brings more frequent bleaching of coral, the islands will have less sediment with which to match the rising tides.
As world leaders (an over-used and often ill-deserved term) turn their attention to climate change for a few weeks surrounding the Paris climate talks, it would behoove us all to consider the problem from the point of view of low-lying island states, particularly those of the Pacific Ocean.
Among these, the story of Kiribati -- about which I wrote in Climate Foxholes in 2013 -- is perhaps the most poignant. It is a country that is already losing ground -- quite literally to the gradual advance of the ocean. As serious as that gradual inundation is, the battering of Kiribati and similarly situated countries by wind and wave is much more complicated and a much greater threat, as several recent reports bear out.
AOSIS) and follow its efforts.