Portrait

A drink in a Glebe pub with ex-President of Kiribati and Nobel Peace prize nominee, Anote Tong. By Sarah Price.

Anote Tong and climate change

Before we settle into our seats at a Glebe pub, Anote Tong hesitates. “Can I give you my right ear?” he asks. His voice is calm and authoritative, with a deep resonance. Tong damaged his hearing free diving in the sea surrounding his home on the low-lying Pacific islands of Kiribati. He is as you would expect a diver to be: lean and hardened and brawny. His eyes are marked with pterygiums from the sun.

Tong has been diving since childhood. Spending time under the ocean’s surface is one of the greatest joys in his life. “It opens a new world to you,” he says. He has a dozen grandchildren, mostly girls. Life in Kiribati has a different rhythm – few people have television, radio is basic and access to internet is among the lowest in the world. People fish and farm vegetables. They make crafts and sell their wares at market. “It is paradise,” Tong says. People have faith, family and community. They believe God created their world, and that God will continue to protect it.

When Tong took office as president in 2003, he began to advocate action on climate change. In his part of the world he sees things – with increasing regularity – that cannot be ignored: intense flooding, erosion, higher-energy storms, water contamination, the destruction of food crops. His fellow I-Kiribati are building seawalls; without them, homes would be lost. Scientists predicted Kiribati could be uninhabitable by 2050. That was before the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “The IPCC report is even more dire,” Tong says. “It compresses the time. I never believed that we were going to get away with it. I have always believed it was inevitable. It is coming. And it is happening in a shorter time frame than originally expected.”

The science is clear, Tong says. He cannot understand why some leaders are still not listening. They do not think about the next generation, or the next country. We approach climate change from national perspectives, yet it is a global problem. We need to work out what is acceptable to nature and what is not. “Australia is very well placed and has the potential to provide global leadership, and it needs to do that for the region. Australia needs to consider if it wants to continue to burn coal – which will destroy our home – or refrain from doing it, and transition to something else. Your political leadership does not believe in climate change. I don’t know where your current leadership is coming from on climate change, but I find it very difficult to understand.”

He continues: “Your politicians are talking about reducing the price of energy, so they can get elected. There is nothing else that motivates them.” The more Tong talks, the more I want to apologise. He came to Australia to advocate urgent action on climate change. At a Canberra restaurant with Phil Glendenning, Patrick Dodson and three other men, he met Australia’s environment minister, Melissa Price. Tong didn’t hear her now notorious remarks. Everyone else at the table did. “I know why you are here, it’s for the cash,” Price said. “For the Pacific, it’s always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want?”

I ask him about Price. “Obviously she needs to learn a great deal more about the world around her,” he says. “If she came to Kiribati, I would be happy to show her what we do. Maybe she could begin to understand … and be less arrogant about it.”

Tong was nominated for the Nobel peace prize. He has met Barack Obama and Pope Francis. In 2015, he spoke at the Climate Change Conference in Paris. His message was, and is, the same: “This is not an economic issue; it is not simply an environmental issue – it is an issue of survival. It is about people. It is the greatest moral challenge facing humanity. We can’t treat it as an equation, or a profit-and-loss account. We have to treat it as a moral challenge.”

Family is everything to his fellow I-Kiribati, Tong says. No one lives alone. When someone is in trouble, or in need, community members will go to their home to assist. It is like an obligation. “I think that is the difference: people are more important than putting money in your bank account. It is not about me, it is about us.

“I said to my wife: ‘I wish I didn’t see this coming, because then I wouldn’t worry.’ But I have no choice but to worry. Who is going to worry if I don’t? We talk about what will happen to the young ones. My wife has such confidence in me. She says: ‘You will work something out. You can never give up.’ ”

Tong is looking for solutions. He has considered a plan to build up the islands, and another to design a floating island. When he was president he purchased land in Fiji. “I just keep trying. As long as you try you have hope. I believe it can be done. It is just a matter of getting the right solutions in place. I will continue to advocate. I need to find concrete, credible solutions that ensure our people will be secure in the future. When the storms come, they’ll be above the storm, and when the tides come, they’ll be above the tide.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "Turning the tide". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.