'Our islands will be under water': One small nation's fight against climate change

Kiribati’s former president Anote Tong and filmmaker Matthieu Rytz joined Carol Off in the As It Happens studio to talk about their documentary Anote's Ark.

Anote's Ark, a documentary about the island republic of Kiribati, playing at Hot Docs festival in Toronto

Kiribati consists of a chain of 33 atolls and islands that stand just metres above sea level, spread over a huge expanse of otherwise empty ocean. (David Gray/Reuters)
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What can one man do when the ocean threatens to swallow his home?

That's the question at the heart of the documentary Anote's Ark, which will have its Canadian premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival on Tuesday.

The "ark" in the film is the island republic of Kiribati, and "Anote" is Kirabati's former president Anote Tong, who is on a mission to tell the world about his country on the front lines of the devastating effects of climate change.

Tong and the Canadian director Matthieu Rytz joined As It Happens host Carol Off in studio to discuss the documentary.

Here is part of their conversation.

President Tong, I just want to ask you, first of all, if you can tell us a bit about Kirabati, because the documentary is very disturbing, very troubling. But it's also very beautiful, because your country, your nation, is so beautiful. 

It is a beautiful country. It is right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the equator, and also straddling the international dateline.

They're all mostly coral atolls. Of course, coral atolls are just bits of coral on top of the seamounts. And so the elevation is, on average, about two metres above sea level and, therefore, not very resilient to any kind of a storm.

With the rising sea level, the level of vulnerability is extreme.

I think we argue that case every time we go to the United Nations to discuss about least developed country status. Even if we do achieve some development, all of this could be cancelled out whenever there is a bit of an adverse condition.

Former Kiribati president Anote Tong discusses his campaign to save the low-lying Pacific nation from global warming, the subject of Canadian filmmaker Matthieu Rytz's documentary Anote's Ark. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

Matthieu Rytz, why did you want to make this documentary?

I started as a photojournalist covering the global issue of the rising sea. And really, why I wanted to start this whole project is when I first met with president Tong in Kirabati.

I met an incredible man, at that time, four years ago. Very charming, but with a mission that blew my mind.

As a head of state, knowing that you will be stateless within the century — I was like, what's the biggest journey? What's the biggest challenge? You don't have something bigger as the head of state than losing the state.

President Tong, you travel the world trying to explain what's going on, trying to get people interested, and to care. You go the United Nations. You meet the Pope. You keep trying to make your case. What is it that you are asking them to do?

The focus of the climate debate has in the past been on the science — whether this was human-induced or whether it's part of the normal cycle. And that took some time to resolve.

But by 2007, with the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it was fairly conclusive that it was human-induced.

And so, they came up with scenarios, which for me, were extremely disastrous for our people.

Climate change is not so much about the science. It's not so much about the environment. It's not about the economies.

For me, it's always been about people and that's the point I've always wanted to make — to bring in the human dimension of the challenge of climate change.

Because a lot of countries believe that it's not relevant, it's not imminent for them, that it doesn't matter. They can still survive. And, to a large extent, there is still that thinking.

A boy stands on top of a seawall in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati. (David Gray/Reuters)

And when you think of how they actually describe it, no one hides it. They talk about climate change "winners and losers."

What I've been asking is, "Here we are, loser. But are you going to allow it to happen?"

And this is why I've always said climate change is the greatest moral challenge for humanity.

Because if you know the action — what you do actually results in the demise of a people on the other side of the world — what are you going to do about it? Are you going to keep going on doing it? Or do you have the moral capacity to refrain from doing it?

That question and that challenge remains.

Our islands will be under water unless, of course, we undertake very serious adaptation measures, for which there are no resources forthcoming, even at this point in time.

As It Happens host Carol Off in studio with Tong and Rytz. (CBC)

Your own family, your own children, grandchildren, it must be so disturbing to know, and as you point out in the film, not just that you are going to lose this place, quite possibly. But how much else you lose. You're an Indigenous people. You lose the entire culture.

I can tell you it's not a nice feeling.

I have more than a dozen grandchildren and I do watch them play.

I ask myself the question, "Where will they be?"

I discuss it with my wife. I say, "Where will these kids be when all of this comes down?"

This is why I know there is a certain sense of thinking that maybe God will provide. Let God provide, but we need to do as much as possible in order to allow that to happen.

There are things we can do to give security to our people and this is what I've been saying, coming up with all kinds of radical options.

But in the absence of anything else, why not?

Written by Imogen Birchard and John McGill. Interview produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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