Today’s Atlantis

Today’s Atlantis
Tabwenikai Kiatonga emigrated to New Zealand because of climate change. Here, he carves a canoe like the ones he had as a kid; he’s trying to keep his Kirabati traditions alive. (Ryan Turner)

Tabwenikai Kiatonga emigrated to New Zealand because of climate change. Here, he carves a canoe like the ones he had as a kid; he’s trying to keep his Kirabati traditions alive. (Ryan Turner)

Pacific islanders are experiencing the effects of global warming and becoming climate change refugees.

The family’s buia—or hut—sits on Abaiang’s shore, its brown color blending in with the bush behind it. Most of the huts are far enough back from the ocean to not be affected by the waves during high tide. But one is out on the horizon, close enough to the impending waves to cause alarm.

“You’d have families who would have waves washing underneath their huts and when asked why the heck they built so close to the ocean,” Ryan Turner said, “they’d say this is actually their grandparents’ house, and it was never actually that close to the water.”

Rising water levels is an outcome of climate change, and it is greatly impacting many Pacific islands like Abaiang—an outer island of Kiribati, an island republic in the Central Pacific. Ryan lived in Kiribati for two years and later studied the effect of climate change on the Kiribati culture.

“I see climate change affecting the people of Kiribati in the everyday sense,” Ryan said. “For instance, a mixture of overfishing plus rising ocean temperatures are causing a massive drop in fish populations. For a culture and country like Kiribati where it predominantly gets its food from the ocean, climate change is affecting its everyday life.”

Because of the rising water due to climate change, the island life is changing drastically for Kiribati natives. Many are emigrating to other countries to survive. A Google search for “Kiribati climate change” reveals scholarly articles, an extensive New York Times project, and even a website created by the Kiribati government specifically about climate change. Kiribati natives aren’t learning about climate change in a classroom and questioning the veracity of it—they’re living it and feeling its very real effects.

Former Kiribati president Anote Tong called for islanders to begin leaving Kiribati in 2020 as living conditions and sustainability become more and more difficult due to global warming. Just over

Pacific islanders are experiencing the effects of global warming and becoming climate change refugees.

The family’s buia—or hut—sits on Abaiang’s shore, its brown color blending in with the bush behind it. Most of the huts are far enough back from the ocean to not be affected by the waves during high tide. But one is out on the horizon, close enough to the impending waves to cause alarm.

“You’d have families who would have waves washing underneath their huts and when asked why the heck they built so close to the ocean,” Ryan Turner said, “they’d say this is actually their grandparents’ house, and it was never actually that close to the water.”

Rising water levels is an outcome of climate change, and it is greatly impacting many Pacific islands like Abaiang—an outer island of Kiribati, an island republic in the Central Pacific. Ryan lived in Kiribati for two years and later studied the effect of climate change on the Kiribati culture.

“I see climate change affecting the people of Kiribati in the everyday sense,” Ryan said. “For instance, a mixture of overfishing plus rising ocean temperatures are causing a massive drop in fish populations. For a culture and country like Kiribati where it predominantly gets its food from the ocean, climate change is affecting its everyday life.”

Because of the rising water due to climate change, the island life is changing drastically for Kiribati natives. Many are emigrating to other countries to survive. A Google search for “Kiribati climate change” reveals scholarly articles, an extensive New York Times project, and even a website created by the Kiribati government specifically about climate change. Kiribati natives aren’t learning about climate change in a classroom and questioning the veracity of it—they’re living it and feeling its very real effects.

Former Kiribati president Anote Tong called for islanders to begin leaving Kiribati in 2020 as living conditions and sustainability become more and more difficult due to global warming. Just over 100,000 people live in Kiribati, which is a string of 33 coral atolls. These 100,000 people are looking for a solution, and they have looked to the nation’s closest neighbor: Fiji, a three- to four-hour flight 2,149 miles away. In 2014, Kiribati bought the 5,500-acre Natoavatu Estate, located just five miles west of Savusavu Bay, in Fiji, to house its increasingly worried population. Kiribati natives were and are becoming climate change refugees.

Yet the Kiribati people don’t necessarily recognize all that’s happening; they just know life is getting harder. “I would say that the main population of Kiribati doesn’t actually know too much about it,” Ryan told me. “So my project with global warming in Kiribati involved me traveling to New Zealand and Fiji to specifically interview Kiribati immigrants. I focused mostly on how their culture is surviving in foreign countries.”

Would the culture—which had been around since between 3000 BC and AD 1300—survive?

“I learned from my project that Kiribati culture in foreign countries is fading away, especially in second- and third-generation immigrants,” Ryan said. “The study was done to see what will happen to the future if all of the people have to leave their homeland due to global warming.” He studied and interviewed Kiribati climate refugees about the changes in how masculinity is defined, how to maintain the skill of weaving, and how to preserve the language. It appears a lot more than their island home will disappear because of climate change.

Though Kiribati has received the most attention for the effects of climate change, it’s far from being the only Pacific island to face the global warming dilemma. I recently met a man from Micronesia who was visiting family in America. I asked if he and his family or friends were seeing negative impacts of climate change. His eyes got big, but also sad—“Yes,” Makio said, “the water just keeps rising.” He translated my question to his friend, and his friend solemnly agreed.

Tainui Wihongi identifies as Maori and a first-generation American. His father emigrated from New Zealand to the United States in the ’70s. Tainui is a dual citizen of the United States and New Zealand, and he lived in New Zealand for most of 2016.

“I was able to witness climate change while living in New Zealand this past year in Hamilton, Waikato, in the stark differences between the seasons,” Tainui said. “Everybody was raving on and on about how cold it was this past winter and how hot it was during the summer.”

Tainui was raised in Seattle, Washington, and said he has “always been very conscious of the environment” as a result. “I always do my best to recycle and reuse and reduce waste,” Tainui said. “I am aware of the world, but its changes don’t affect me personally day to day too much.”

In New Zealand though, Tainui saw a lot of effort to help the environment. He talks about the waste and recycling programs and the expensive petrol that influences people to use more public transportation. Plastic bags, he tells me, generally cost shoppers in most stores in an effort to incentivize a decrease in plastic consumption. “The progressive government helps in prevention of worsening the climate’s situation,” he says.

However, people are feeling the effects outside of plastic shopping bags. “An interesting thing that has made many Kiwis aware of climate change and our effect on the environment is this strange phenomenon that has hugely affected New Zealand society for decades—the disintegration of the ozone,” Tainui said. “Due to global pollution and the proximity of New Zealand, the ozone layer has perforations around the South Pole, therefore leading to a huge percentage of sunburns and skin cancer—one of the highest on the planet.”

Tainui said the visible effects of the ozone made Kiwis more aware of the issue and fight hard to prevent it.

Much like the people of Kiribati who are currently feeling the effects of global warming and the loss of their culture, the Kiwis are working to effect change. What’s the rest of the world doing to prepare?  

100,000 people live in Kiribati, which is a string of 33 coral atolls. These 100,000 people are looking for a solution, and they have looked to the nation’s closest neighbor: Fiji, a three- to four-hour flight 2,149 miles away. In 2014, Kiribati bought the 5,500-acre Natoavatu Estate, located just five miles west of Savusavu Bay, in Fiji, to house its increasingly worried population. Kiribati natives were and are becoming climate change refugees.

Yet the Kiribati people don’t necessarily recognize all that’s happening; they just know life is getting harder. “I would say that the main population of Kiribati doesn’t actually know too much about it,” Ryan told me. “So my project with global warming in Kiribati involved me traveling to New Zealand and Fiji to specifically interview Kiribati immigrants. I focused mostly on how their culture is surviving in foreign countries.”

Would the culture—which had been around since between 3000 BC and AD 1300—survive?

“I learned from my project that Kiribati culture in foreign countries is fading away, especially in second- and third-generation immigrants,” Ryan said. “The study was done to see what will happen to the future if all of the people have to leave their homeland due to global warming.” He studied and interviewed Kiribati climate refugees about the changes in how masculinity is defined, how to maintain the skill of weaving, and how to preserve the language. It appears a lot more than their island home will disappear because of climate change.

Though Kiribati has received the most attention for the effects of climate change, it’s far from being the only Pacific island to face the global warming dilemma. I recently met a man from Micronesia who was visiting family in America. I asked if he and his family or friends were seeing negative impacts of climate change. His eyes got big, but also sad—“Yes,” Makio said, “the water just keeps rising.” He translated my question to his friend, and his friend solemnly agreed.

Tainui Wihongi identifies as Maori and a first-generation American. His father emigrated from New Zealand to the United States in the ’70s. Tainui is a dual citizen of the United States and New Zealand, and he lived in New Zealand for most of 2016.

“I was able to witness climate change while living in New Zealand this past year in Hamilton, Waikato, in the stark differences between the seasons,” Tainui said. “Everybody was raving on and on about how cold it was this past winter and how hot it was during the summer.”

Tainui was raised in Seattle, Washington, and said he has “always been very conscious of the environment” as a result. “I always do my best to recycle and reuse and reduce waste,” Tainui said. “I am aware of the world, but its changes don’t affect me personally day to day too much.”

In New Zealand though, Tainui saw a lot of effort to help the environment. He talks about the waste and recycling programs and the expensive petrol that influences people to use more public transportation. Plastic bags, he tells me, generally cost shoppers in most stores in an effort to incentivize a decrease in plastic consumption. “The progressive government helps in prevention of worsening the climate’s situation,” he says.

However, people are feeling the effects outside of plastic shopping bags. “An interesting thing that has made many Kiwis aware of climate change and our effect on the environment is this strange phenomenon that has hugely affected New Zealand society for decades—the disintegration of the ozone,” Tainui said. “Due to global pollution and the proximity of New Zealand, the ozone layer has perforations around the South Pole, therefore leading to a huge percentage of sunburns and skin cancer—one of the highest on the planet.”

Tainui said the visible effects of the ozone made Kiwis more aware of the issue and fight hard to prevent it.

Much like the people of Kiribati who are currently feeling the effects of global warming and the loss of their culture, the Kiwis are working to effect change. What’s the rest of the world doing to prepare?  

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