A canary in the climate change coal mine: the island nation of Kiribati is disappearing into the sea

By Rebecca West

The South Pacific nation of Kiribati has been dealt an unfavourable hand in the global fight against climate change. It is literally losing ground as its 33 coral atolls and islands are being destroyed by rising sea levels and extreme weather events like floods, earthquakes and tropical cyclones.

Much of Kiribati (pronounced KEE-ree-bas) lies only several feet above sea level. According to predictions in the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, if we can curb global warming to only 1.5°C by the year 2100, sea levels will rise 0.85 to 2.5 feet. If the earth warms by 2°C, sea levels will rise by another ⅓ foot. The math doesn’t look good either way — some of the nation's uninhabited islets have already disappeared, while others likely have a similar fate ahead of them.

Former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, highlights the human challenge this presents in the documentary Anote’s Ark: “I want to truly emphasize that climate change is not a political issue. It’s not an entirely economic issue. It’s an issue of survival.”

During his three terms in power, he pushed for climate-change reform and was active on the world stage in sharing the plight of his people. He promoted the notion of “migration with dignity” and oversaw the purchase of 6,000 acres in Fiji, an island nation over 1,600 kilometres away, as a possible refuge. Even more far-flung, Kiribati officials at one point considered moving their population to a floating island built by a Japanese engineering firm.

Anote’s Ark is a stark reminder that climate change is all too real today — and that our eventual fate is not so distant from that of the Kiribati people.

Watch Anote's Ark.

Take a trip to Kiribati in 360.

Produced with additional funding from: