Predictably, the recent Pacific Island Forum raised serious issues. Leaders agreed to disagree when Australia and New Zealand blocked a bid to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees over pre-Industrial Revolution levels rather than 2 degrees, as accepted by the 2014 Climate Summit.
When Tony Abbott returned, he and Peter Dutton engaged in some tasteless small talk which upset the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong.
Tong has campaigned about the impact of climate change in the Pacific, and he reacted with sadness rather than anger. "I find that extremely sad, extremely disappointing, that we are making jokes about a very serious issue. It shows a sense of moral irresponsibility quite unbecoming of leadership."
Tong and Kiribati are a symbol of the fight against climate change. "This entire country is about to be wiped out by climate change," he warns us. "It won't be the last one."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon agrees. In September 2011 he visited Kiribati and met with Tong. The main topic of conversation was climate change and the effect of rising sea levels. "Watching this high tide standing on the shore of Kiribati, I said 'High tides show it's time to act'. We are running out of time,"said Ban.
Media reports claim security guards put a life jacket in his room, just in case, and he planted some mangroves - "one of the cheapest and surest ways to protect coastal environments".
Australia provides substantial foreign aid to Kiribati. When Bob Carr as Foreign Minister visited in 2013 he said "Kiribati is at the front line of climate change…Unless action is taken, Kiribati will be uninhabitable by 2030 as a result of coastal erosion, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion into drinking water."
Kiribati comprises a chain of 33 atolls and islands spread out over 5000 kilometres of ocean. It became a British protectorate in 1892, was granted self-rule in 1971 and independence in 1979. The Phoenix and Line Island groups were added in 1979.
Kiribati owned assets of considerable commercial value. Banaba is a phosphate island, and mining for fertiliser stripped away 90% of the island's surface. By the 1970s, annual production reached a high of 550,000 tons, but deposits were exhausted by the time of Kiribati's independence. Phosphate was Kiribati's major resource, leaving fishing and copra as the only real sources of income.
Kiribati established diplomatic relationships with China in 1980. The relationship was important for both countries. China established a satellite tracking station in 1997, paid $US250,000 a year rent and provided aid to Kiribati. The geographical situation, just above the equator, was ideal for China's space program, but was unpopular with America –some argued that its purpose was to spy on a US testing station on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Anote Tong won the election in 2003. The space station was the hot election issue. Anote was backed by Taiwan, his half-brother Harry by China
Within a month, Anote announced that Kiribati would cut ties with mainland China and switch allegiance to Taiwan. Taiwan reportedly paid over $11 million in ''aid'' but speculation was that the US was behind the switch and helped pay the bill.
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