The Radical Rationalist, Anote Tong

James Dryburgh explores one man’s vision for the future of a low-lying nation in the face of potentially catastrophic climate impacts.

Originally published in Island Magazine.

Photo by Remi Chauvin.


The archipelago of Kiribati spans a huge 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean and contains 33 tiny coral atolls. With an average height above sea level of two metres, it is the world’s lowest lying country. The total population is approximately 113 000 people – the majority living on Tarawa, a chain of islands looping around a lagoon. For the people of Kiribati, climate change is not an issue for tomorrow – habitable land is already being lost or contaminated due to creeping sea levels. Families living on the coastline are being forced inward on to other people’s land. Refugees from war-ravaged nations who have suffered torture, seen loved ones killed and lost everything, often still yearn to return to their homeland, despite what their country has done to them, despite the memories it holds. For the potential refugees of Kiribati, there may be no home to return to, no place to bind past, present and future generations. Anote Tong was President of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016. He was born in 1952 on Tabuaeran, a Kiribati island with a population of less than 2000 people and a maximum altitude of three metres. Known globally for his efforts to raise awareness of the threats posed by climate change, he has met with world leaders such as Barack Obama and Pope Francis to push the issue, and has been dubbed the ‘Mahatma Gandhi of the Pacific’. He recently spoke to James Dryburgh for Island.



James Dryburgh: How did your family end up on Tabuaeran and what was it like growing up there?


Anote Tong: Tabuaeran is one of the islands in the Line Islands Group on the eastern-most side of Kiribati. I spent the first six years of my life there and it was really the only prolonged period of time that I ever spent with my parents. Some of the memories I recall are the presence of the British soldiers on Tabuaeran and the atomic bomb test in Kiritimati when residents were evacuated to Tabuaeran, one of whom was an uncle. My father came to Tabuaeran as part of the Cable and Wireless workers recruited from Hong Kong soon after WWII. And my mother came with her uncle who came as part of the local labour to work on the coconut plantation run by Burns Philp. JD: What influence did your time in England and other travels in your youth have on your perceptions of Kiribati? AT: I went to London in August 1987 to June 1988 where I did my graduate studies at the London School of Economics, but perhaps the greatest influence abroad for me was my time in New Zealand where I attended secondary school from the age of 14 and then university from 1971 to 1974. It also represented for me perhaps the most difficult period of adjustment, coming from a rural environment directly into a metropolitan centre like Christchurch. The initial cultural adjustment was very difficult but, I suppose, like most young people I learned to survive and even thrive in it. As one of very few people who had been awarded a scholarship to study abroad, I felt an immense sense of responsibility upon returning after graduating and joining the civil service. Kiribati was then still a colony of Britain with very few locals in senior positions in the service. My time in New Zealand had taught me to regard the expatriates as equals, not to be revered as was the prevailing local perception towards Europeans at the time.


JD: What made you enter politics?


AT: I recall asking my wife if she would object if I was to enter politics and her simple answer was, “I had always wondered when you would do that”. After working at senior level in the civil service, prolonged periods of working abroad and extensive travels, I thought that gave me the experience, and perhaps the arrogance, to believe that I could make a positive contribution to the way the country was run.


JD: You are known internationally as a ‘climate warrior’ and protector of marine environments. Did growing up in Kiribati make you environmentally aware or did other events in your life lead you down this path?


AT: It was never my intention to seek publicity or relative fame when I started on this journey to advocate on climate change. After taking office in the middle of 2003, I spent the rest of that year getting used to the task of leading a nation both at home and at the international level. At the international level, Kiribati as a relatively small island nation had not really taken a prominent role in international debates, including at the United Nations General Assembly. But the one issue that immediately caught my attention was the damning report of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and its dire implications for the most vulnerable countries such as Kiribati. What was more frustrating was the apparent lack of concern in the international community about the serious implications of the impacts of climate change on people. The focus of the debate on climate change had up to then been on the science, whether climate change was part of the natural cycle or human induced. The focus of the debate at the UN General Assembly was on terrorism and it made me quite angry to think how people can be so callous. After all, this potential catastrophe was not of our making yet we would be the first victims. In my mind, I could very clearly envision people, my people, scrambling around trying to survive the rising tide, the worsening storms, yet nobody seemed to care. I felt anger, frustration and a sense of futility, but more recently some hope and even opportunity.


JD: What effects of climate change and sea level rise are already being felt in Kiribati?


AT: We have communities who had to leave their village because it has been eroded and submerged, communities where food crops have been destroyed and the fresh water left contaminated due to sea water intrusion. During a tropical cyclone event in 2015, all the islands of Tuvalu and our southernmost islands were flooded. There are constant requests for protection of the coastline to protect community infrastructure, which Government is unable to meet due to the high expenses involved.

Due to erosion, the village of Tebunginako on the island of Abaiang has lost what once was a thriving community. Freshwater ponds in the villages of Kiebu on Makin, Ukiangang on the island of Butaritari, Ribono on Abaiang and so on have been breached, destroying crops and contaminating the fresh water supply. It is a gradual, progressive process, which shows no signs of receding.


JD: I understand that you try not to talk too much about climate change at home in Kiribati because you don’t want to create unnecessary fear in your people …


AT: You must understand, we are a different society to what you are in Australia. Our people are different. We have a different set of values. We don’t have television. We have very little. You know, they are not informed, so why should I bother them to constantly remind them that the sea level is rising? They would misinterpret this and think their lives are in imminent danger. But it’s not about this so much, it’s about the long-term effects of climate change. People have been living all their lives in homes where there is a very marginal difference between the highest water level and the height of the land, hence all would seem normal. It is only when the unusually high tides come and coincide with moderate winds (20+ knots), when homes and infrastructure are damaged, that people get concerned. For most people in Kiribati, climate change, sea level rise and the possible loss of their homeland are distant possibilities, and a large number do not dwell on it or even deny that it would ever happen. Most people in Kiribati come from a subsistence lifestyle where long-term possibilities do not always factor into their thinking. The possibility of their islands being under water is something that is really difficult for most to imagine.


JD: I assume ‘everyday people’ in Kiribati are not very engaged in Australian or international politics around climate change?


AT: Most people in Kiribati do not think about Australia let alone the implications of its policy on coal for the future of their homes. Hence, the heavy burden of moral responsibility on those with the knowledge of the damage they do as result of these policies and the capacity to do something about the fate of people in the most vulnerable countries.


JD: While you’re trying to protect your people from unnecessary stress, how do you feel?


AT: As a leader, I feel the responsibility of finding credible solutions for the time when the impacts of climate change become more severe. I have more than a dozen grandchildren, so for me the problem is real and the solutions must not be theoretical but real and practical. I often wonder what is to become of my grandchildren, and of course they will have the same fate as all other children in Kiribati, as well as those in other vulnerable countries. So far there has been little to reassure me.


JD: How do you predict the next 100 years will play out for Kiribati, and globally, with regard to climate change?


AT: Simply based on the projections of the IPCC, the most vulnerable communities will be facing extreme challenges. Kiribati will definitely be facing an existential threat and would either have to undertake very substantial adaptation measures to build resilience to the consequences of climate change or relocate its people. Unless even greater commitments are made globally to significantly reduce emissions, the likelihood of a catastrophic end to many communities worldwide is almost inevitable.


JD: Your country has committed to trying to stay where it belongs and has even explored possibilities such as the construction of floating islands and other engineering solutions. But you have also prepared your country for possible migration, purchasing 20 square kilometres of land in Fiji and negotiating with their government about a possible future resettlement. Can you tell me how you deal with existential decisions in such a pragmatic way?


AT: What would you do? What would you do with your family, not just today but in the future, when you know that something is happening? What would you do? I ask everybody that question. We have to find liveable solutions. We have bought land. Maybe people will move, maybe they will not, but I am always hoping it will not be the case. I’ve got to listen to the signs and I’ve got to respond. Otherwise I would be absolutely stupid. It’s about looking after the future and future generations.


JD: How did you reach the decision to buy land in Fiji, to potentially re-home the nation of Kiribati should the islands become unliveable, an option sometimes described as ‘migration with dignity’?


AT: Until credible solutions can be identified to ensure that our islands will continue to be able to accommodate our future generations and in the absence of any firm offers from any other country to accommodate our people if and when our islands become submerged, the purchase of land in Fiji offers the only concrete option. My response to questions as to why I went ahead and bought the piece of land has been a guarded “as an investment in real estate”. I have always been well aware of the sensitivity of the Fiji Government and the Fijian people when saying that it is for the relocation of our people. Fiji already has ethnic issues to deal with, and quite a number of our people relocated to Fiji during the colonial period. However, the most encouraging development has been the unilateral decision by the Fiji Government to offer to accommodate our people and those from Tuvalu should the need arise in future due to climate change. The decision to buy the land was also intended as a strong message, a challenge to the international community, that our situation is serious and that we are determined to do something about it if nobody else will.


JD: Do you think that we are now going backwards due to President Trump replacing Obama, or do you think there is enough momentum now, including in the private sector, for the change in administration not to have a significant effect?


AT: What President Trump has done will be significant, but it won’t be significant for too long, because the point is, James, the wider global community has decided to do something and it will go on regardless of what the United States does. Sorry, not the United States, what President Trump does, because the United States as a country knows what is ahead. I was in New York recently and I heard that loud and clear from delegations from different states and from the private sector.


JD: What is making you despair and what makes you hopeful at the moment?


AT: The apparent inevitability of the oncoming disaster is not something to dwell on too much. But yet, such a disaster will force us to consider options and solutions, which up to now we have been unwilling to explore. I believe that these options could in fact provide better opportunities for people. What has been so gratifying recently, in New York, was the messages coming from the private sector. The progress that has been made there will continue and gather strength regardless of individual governments. And the simple reason is that we have no choice.


JD: How do you think you will spend the next ten years? Do you intend to continue your global advocacy?


AT: I don’t know the answer to that question. I really want to take my retirement, because I’m getting old. But you know, I will continue to do what I have been trying to do until it happens. I’d like to achieve it before I take time off.


JD: You have talked about the need to assess and redefine our values; do you think this is where the arts (writing, photography, film and the like) can play an important role?


AT: I don’t know what roles art and literature can play in addressing this issue, but certainly more effective communication and telling the stories of people involved can surely contribute. What I believe really needs to be revisited is our sense of values as human beings. The economic models that we use to measure our personal and national performances ignore these very important human attributes – the yardsticks are much too materialistic and somewhat self-centred. For me climate change has always been a moral challenge. How do we turn that into a form of communication to make it happen, whether it’s through the arts, what I am doing, anything – it’s about communication. Come on, let’s make it happen, because it’s got to happen. And the point is, James, whoever thinks he is not being affected is absolutely wrong.


JD: Speaking of the moral obligations inherent in climate change and the inability of countries to keep emissions and the impacts created by them within their borders, how different do you think things would be if Australia or the United States, for example, were an average of two metres above sea level, as Kiribati is?


AT: [Laughs] You know, the answer to that question is really simple: if you decide to continue to emit simply because your economy depends on it and do not think about the consequences on other parts of the world … well … climate change is a global scenario. It’s not a sovereign issue for Australia, nor for the United States, because they cannot keep their emissions within their borders. It’s very simple, do they have the moral courage? Because at this point in time there is no regulation, no regulatory regime to say, “You are doing wrong; you should be paying for it”.


JD: How did you feel when you saw Australian politicians waving lumps of coal around in parliament and offering public money to help fund a huge new coal mine for Adani? How does it make you feel about Australia?


AT: I think it is immoral, absolutely immoral. You know why? Because all they are thinking about is themselves, but the unfortunate reality is so much bigger than them. It is a global problem. You know if they could absolutely guarantee that whatever they do with the coal, whether it is in India where they sell it, or China, that the effects remain within the borders of those countries … come on! It is not only immoral, it is bloody stupid. I have no problem with the Australian people. Like people elsewhere, Australians are human beings with the capacity to feel compassion. Governments on the other hand tend to be focused solely on economic growth as the measure of their performance and their ticket at the next election. Until the day that climate change can be regarded as relevant to the national agenda it will continue to remain secondary. Climate change is a classic example of politics taking precedence over common sense.


JD: What should Australia be doing with regard to climate change and its Pacific neighbours?


AT: As I have always said, climate change is the greatest moral challenge facing humanity at this time. Armed with the knowledge that we now know about the causes and the consequences of climate change, it would be expected that moral human beings, including the Australian Government, would wish to do the right thing. But our repeated rejection of what our greater sense tells us is amazing. I would expect Australia to take seriously its commitment to reduce emissions and take the necessary steps to achieve that, especially by refraining from opening new coal mines.


JD: Some people argue that for governments to change and for people to truly wake up to an issue like climate change, there needs to be a catastrophic disaster rather than lots of ‘little disasters’. Do you agree with this in any way?


AT: I think that is bloody stupid. Bloody stupid. Because we are an informed society and the science is absolutely clear. I think this view is absolutely stupid and immoral. … You know, just because it is not happening at your doorstep …


JD: Why did you advocate for the Phoenix Islands Protected Area?


AT: Part of my studies at the London School of Economics was on fisheries management and economics. I was therefore well aware of the fate of fisheries in other parts of the world due to unsustainable management. Technical assessment of the Western and Central Pacific tuna fishery indicated an alarming decline in stock levels of the more targeted species, namely bigeye and yellowfin tuna. I am also a very keen free diver and have seen places that have virtually been fished out due to ineffective or absent management. Technical assessment by marine biologists who had surveyed the Phoenix Islands in the early 2000s showed signs of a healthy marine biodiversity, and when they came forward with a proposal to conserve the area I found it to be a very attractive proposal. After the initial designation of 12 miles around the islands, Cabinet later agreed to extend this to 60 km around the entire group of islands, thereby designating what was then the largest marine protected area in the world, over 400 000 square kilometres. With Kiribati’s total exclusive economic zone area of 3.5 million square kilometres this represented a little over 10%, which made Kiribati one of the few countries to meet its commitment under the Biodiversity Convention. For me it also represented a very loud statement to the international community and echoes my repeated calls for sacrifices to be made if we as a global community are ever to effectively address the challenge of climate change.


JD: How does it feel in forums such as the UN General Assembly when you represent such a small nation with limited economic and political power? How are you treated and how do you deal with this situation?


AT: Initially, nobody took much notice of what I was saying at the UN General Assembly annual debates. The focus of attention was international terrorism. But I believe it was also due to how I was presenting my case. Over time, the validity of what I was saying was supported by more scientific analysis, which brought home to people the enormity of the human catastrophe ahead of us. Previous to that, climate change was more about science and the environment with little focus on the human dimension. You know we talk too much about the numbers. It’s not about numbers; it has always been about people. It’s not about 1.5 or 2 degrees; it’s about people.


JD: You have described yourself as ‘radically rational’. Can you explain what you mean by this?


AT: [Laughs] Yeah, because when I started talking about climate change everybody thought that I was crazy. Nobody listened or wanted to hear me talk. At the time I was pointing fingers, but then I saw I had to rethink my approach. So how should I do it? I learned that I had to remain very calm. Being rational, saying “Come on, we have big trouble ahead of us. We all created it (not you, but all of us), so the solution cannot be created without our collective action.” That’s all it was.


JD: I have to tell you about the dream I had the other night. I had been reading about you, and I dreamt that you sent me an email that was just one line. You wrote: “It may not be the world’s most interesting story, but it is the world’s story.”


AT: Well it is. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s the truth. Nobody can change it – it is the truth. I am listening to your dream; it is significant I think.▼