Climate change pushes Kiribati underwater

Source: International Herald Tribune and AP

The leader of a country slowly being submerged by the Pacific Ocean told an environment conference Thursday that climate change is an issue of human survival, not economic development. Speaking in New Zealand — the host country for the U.N.’s World Environment Day on Thursday — Kiribati President Anote Tong said global efforts to curb climate change may already be too late for low-lying Pacific islands.

“We may already be at the point of no return, where the emissions in the atmosphere will carry on contributing to climate change, so in time our small low-lying islands will be submerged,” Tong said. “According to the worst case scenarios, Kiribati will be submerged within (this) century.”

The highest point of land on Kiribati is now just two yards (meters) above sea level, said Tong, a graduate of the London School of Economics. He said climate change “is not an issue of economic development; it’s an issue of human survival.”

Some of Kiribati’s 94,000 people living in shoreline village communities have already been relocated from century-old sites. “We’re doing it now … it’s that urgent,” Tong said.

United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner said it was difficult for island nations to watch as the effects of climate change take hold.

“It’s a humbling prospect when a nation has to begin talking about its own demise, not because of some inevitable natural disaster … but because of what we are doing on this planet,” Steiner said.

He said the world must find the “collective purpose” to combat climate change. “Unless everyone … on this planet takes their responsibility seriously we will simply not make a difference,” he said.

New Zealand was chosen to host World Environment Day because it was one of the first nations to commit to carbon neutrality and has provided climate change leadership, Steiner said.

A major new wind farm being developed on its outskirts of the capital Wellington means the city will soon be 100 percent carbon neutral in its electricity supply, Prime Minister Helen Clark said.

Environment chiefs from the world’s top industrial nations pledged last month to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, but stopped short of making firm commitments for a midterm goal for 2020 — which many countries argue is crucial to saving the planet from environmental crisis.

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