Walking along the idyllic shores of their island nation, I-Kiribati youth activist Tiiranga Bwamaere examines the exposed roots of the struggling seaside shrubbery. Her classmate, Floreen Tikau, points off-shore to the submerged remains of sand-bag “seawalls,” barely visible but sparkling through Kiribati’s turquoise-blue waters in the afternoon sun.
It was the fall of 2015, just months before the Paris Climate Accords (COP21), where 195 countries would soon make history by collectively committing to reduce global warming. But for low-lying nations that face an existential threat from climate change, the lead-up to the Paris COP21 was a time of apprehension, uncertainty, and intense international lobbying for their countries’ futures.
Back on the shores of one of those vulnerable countries, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, the youth were determined to lead and secure their generation’s future.
Instead of relaxing on their high school’s nearby beach, Floreen and Tiiranga were conducting a vigorous citizen’s investigation into the coastal erosion imperiling their school.
“We used to play on this beach behind our school house, but every year, the beach gets wider and then steeper,” Tiiranga, now 20, explained. “Coastal erosion from climate change is the main issue our country faces, so we chose to do our field work for Science [class] right here, at our school, to collect evidence and to investigate whether or not coastal erosion really exists.”
The students of this school have conducted these investigations for years, and their evidence reflects what scientists around the world have long warned about their home: Rising sea-levels due to climate change may render low-lying island nations, like Kiribati, uninhabitable by 2050.
“We’re very afraid that, in the future, there won’t be any school to attend!” Floreen, now 21, lamented, looking down at the tide as waves splash along her ankles.
The road to COP23: Climate action in the age of Trump
Today, two years later, Floreen and Tiiranga are a long way from their tiny island home as international college students. But, with the annual COP23 United Nations climate summit approaching, both young women are lobbying harder than ever for immediate global climate action.
“After the Paris COP21, I was amazed that finally the world could all agree and come together for something as important as protecting our planet,” Floreen reflects via Skype from her university in Taiwan. “Most importantly, I was hopeful because America and China were willing to contribute; it was very considerate of them, but also most important, because they are the biggest polluters. It was amazing!”
“So when I heard Trump pulled out, I was completely heartbroken,” Floreen continued, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s June announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. “The agreement was not even enough to help Kiribati, but there was so much value and collaboration that is worth protecting.”
“I don’t know why your president doesn’t believe in science. And I didn’t know until very recently that the U.S. didn’t believe in climate change,” remarked Tiiranga by Skype from New Zealand. “But my perspective is that his policy is not about science — he is reluctant because of industry. We know most developed countries want to protect their development, like all countries, but even if they could minimize a small percentage for the rest of the world and small countries like ours, it could change my family and my country’s future.“
For 11 days this month, the world will descend on Bonn, Germany, for the COP23, the annual United Nations summit to continue the progress of the 2015 Paris Accords. The United States is the largest carbon-polluter in history and is currently one of the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases on earth, second only to China. Though recent news reports suggest President Trump’s cabinet may introduce compromises that could keep the U.S. from fully withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, Floreen and Tiiranga, like many climate activists around the world, are not optimistic.
“I feel a bit hopeless,” says Floreen. “I worry other countries will pull out if America doesn’t do its part and the whole deal will collapse.”
Climate change has had a wide range of effects on Kiribati, from coastal erosion, to extreme weather, to water contamination, to fishing irregularities, and coral bleaching that impact Kiribati’s economy. Thus, Tiiranga and Floreen want to invite President Trump to visit Kiribati to see these impacts for himself.
“If he grew up in our country, living with this fear daily as I did, if he felt as scared as we do when these storm surges hit our tiny islands with no mercy, he wouldn’t be mocking the scientists or the vulnerable people from countries like ours,” Floreen stated firmly.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve witnessed the impacts of climate change. How it threatens my family and my people, how scared we are about a big storm, and how much work it costs us to protect our homes with just sandbag walls.” Floreen continued. “When you see what climate change can do to your islands and your loved ones, you would have no doubt that we must do something, especially if science gives us answers on what we can do to prevent the worst.”
Reclaiming their land
Yet, Floreen and Tiiranga have faith that the youth, 60 percent of their country’s population, will save Kiribati. Their generation’s leadership on climate action will be crucial to Kiribati’s survival.
“Our young people are the most valuable resource in our country, and I believe that, if our youth have opportunities, education, and support from these developed countries, we can save ourselves,” Tiiranga insisted. “We can’t solve climate change totally by ourselves, we need the whole world to contribute, but I believe our youth and people can at least help ourselves and the Pacific with a little support.”
Apart from reducing pollution and transitioning to clean energy, both Tiiranga and Floreen invited developed countries to send scientists and engineers “to help Kiribati float” and to reclaim submerged coastlines, “like in the Netherlands.” They both encouraged Americans who support climate action to finance these projects and educational opportunities for the I-Kiribati youth.
“It’s very painful to prepare for this possible reality of the end, so our generation does not accept the future of abandoning our island,” Tiiranga said with determination. “We want to use science and technology to reclaim our islands from the sea.”
“Kiribati may be small and not very well known, but it is a beautiful place with kind, considerate people. We are proud of our history and have great faith despite the challenges,” Floreen added. “So we are not standing down because fighting is our only option. But we ask the youth in America to help us survive the mistakes of adults and reimagine a new green world together.”
For more, watch Anna Therese Day’s report from Kirbati that was released last month.