Climate change is the greatest moral issue faced by humanity in modern history, according to Former President of Kiribati Anote Tong during a lecture hosted in Copley Formal Lounge on Oct. 17.

Titled The Global Challenge of Climate-Induced Migration, the lecture was sponsored by the Global Futures Initiative, Georgetown Environment Initiative, Environmental Futures Initiative and the School of Foreign Service’s Science, Technology and International Affairs program. The event was part of the semester-long “The Global Future of the Environment” dialogue.

Environmental Futures Initiative member Aaron Silberman (SFS ’18) moderated the discussion.

Tong’s speech focused on the critical state of the Pacific Ocean island nation of Kiribati, which is predicted to be fully submerged in water within the next century. Thousands of Kiribati people have been displaced due to rising sea levels, resulting in loss of land for living and crop production.

“In all my advocacy, I have always referred to climate change as the greatest moral challenge facing humanity at any time,” Tong said. “Now that we know what we are doing is detrimental to the future survival of people and that we have the capacity to save that future, the question is: Are we willing to do something about it?”

Tong suggested that using floating islands or elevating land above predicted water levels may be possible solutions to the rising sea level threat Kiribati and other Pacific Island nations currently face. As the situation in the Pacific becomes more dire, and as technology progresses, island nation governments are starting to consider these concepts that were once thought to be impossible.

“It is my very strong conviction that in times like this, extraordinary and unconventional solutions are needed. Indeed, these are crazy, but we have no other option,” Tong said.

Despite the potential realization of these solutions, there are not enough resources to support the entire Kiribati population. As a result, the island population will need to migrate. Fiji and New Zealand already have systems in place for accepting Kiribati refugees.

Silberman highlighted the significance of dignified migration and said it is important to allow migrants to be treated as more than refugees.

“It’s a concept that, if executed properly, would go some way to giving justice to people who are suffering a profound injustice,” Silberman said. “Rather than taking away the agency of people and simply classifying them as powerless refugees, instead work could be done that would allow people to choose where they move, choose when they move.”

Tong acknowledged the sacrifices the people of Kiribati make when they migrate to other nations. Tong pointed to one Kiribati community that had migrated to the Solomon Islands in the 1960s, highlighting its assimilation into its host nation’s culture.

“Our people were beginning to do things that Solomon Islanders do. I saw this lady chewing betel nuts. In Kiribati we don’t do that. There was this other lady carrying what looked like Kiribas baby, so obviously there has been intermarriage,” Tong said.

Tong also discussed the importance of establishing effective programs to smooth the process of migration and to prevent a situation similar to the Syrian refugee crisis. However, he stressed that keeping the islands above water is the utmost priority, as Kiribati culture greatly relies on the physical land.

“We want to be able to maintain our islands so that those have somewhere to come back to find out, ‘What was our culture?’ In order to maintain culture, we must have a home,” Tong said.

Brice Russo (COL ’18), an attendee, said he left the lecture with a deeper understanding of the critical state of Kiribati and of the world as a result of climate change.

“I think it is of global importance, it is an issue that affects everyone and it’s our responsibility as people — as humans — that tragedies like this don’t affect others,” Russo said.

Jake Glass (SFS ’20) said he was moved by how Tong spoke of the culture and livelihoods of communities impacted by climate change.

“I think there’s a lot of empty rhetoric surrounding climate change, and a lot of politicians believe it’s simply an issue we need to argue about whether or not it’s actually happening. In this case, sea levels are actually rising, and it’s just fascinating and really saddening to see that there is a personal humanitarian impact to the rise of sea levels,” Glass said.

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