President Anote Tong from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati does not mince words on the urgent need to phase out coal. He cannot afford to — his country is literally disappearing as a result of global warming.
Tong released a statement on August 13 calling on countries to commit to phasing out coal before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris in December where more than 190 countries are expected to attend.
“A global moratorium on new coal mines [is] an essential initial step in our collective global action against climate change,” he said.
“The urgency of the issue cannot be emphasised enough. We are now facing major challenges never faced before not only from the rise in sea levels, but also from the real possibility of changes from the current weather patterns.
“Indeed, the forces of nature have intensified more than ever before and are occurring with greater frequency. Regrettably for most of us, the consequences have been devastating.”
The average elevation across Kiribati’s 32 atolls and main coral island that straddles the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is two metres. Projected sea level rises as a result of global warming would make most of its citizens homeless.
Tong’s call is aims to exert pressure on countries which rely on coal for energy and export — such as Australia — to commit to serious action to curb emissions.
However, it is going to fall on deaf ears unless activists and others force the issue. This is because Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott believes coal is “good for humanity” and, just in the past couple of months, his government has gone in to bat for the controversial Shenhua mega coalmine in NSW and the Adani-Carmichael coalmine in Queensland.
This is despite growing concern about the adverse impact of the proposed mines on underground water resources, agricultural land and the extra carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. A growing chorus of dissent from farmers, environmentalists and others has prompted the federal Coalition government to try to silence them.
Kiribati is experiencing exactly what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted for coastal and low-lying areas. It is increasingly being swept by a series of high tides — which are growing in intensity. In many cases, it said, the world is ill-prepared for the risks arising from global warming.
Last year, Tong estimated his country had 20 years left before it disappeared.
He is so concerned at the lack of international action he is resorting to private solutions: he has bought about 6000 acres of land in Fiji for resettling his people, and every year he sends 75 citizens to live in New Zealand.
Tong told the New Yorker last year that while he will keep trying to construct seawalls, which are also being destroyed, he is determined build up at least one of the islands so that even if the nation's citizens are forced to flee, a part of Kiribati will remain.
But he has not given up the political fight.
“The construction of each new coalmine undermines the spirit and intent of any agreement we may reach, particularly in the upcoming COP21 in Paris,” he said. “Stopping new coalmine constructions now will make any agreement reached in Paris truly historical.”
Nicholas Stern, from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has backed Tong’s call, urging “a rapid end to a global reliance on coal for energy”.
Stern, a former World Bank chief economist — and no radical — also took aim at those, like Abbott, who claim coal is the cure for poverty.
“Coal is not only the worst fossil fuel in terms of emissions of carbon dioxide, but also contributes worldwide each year to human illness and the premature deaths of millions of people from air pollution,” Stern said on August 13.
“When its true costs are taken into account, coal is far more expensive than its current purchase price, and it is poor people who are most exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution and climate change.”
Kiribati is a prime example of this. With a gross domestic product $233 million, ranking number 212 in the world, it does not have a lot of room to move.
Per capita, Kiribati contributes just 0.6 metric tonnes of CO₂ to the atmosphere compared with Australia’s per capita 16.5 metric tonnes.
The destruction caused by global warming will most badly affect the poor — those least able to resist or make alternative living arrangements. This makes the moral argument to phase out coal even more imperative, and adds to the scientific data which comprehensively shows fossil fuels are the major contributor to dangerous climate change.
The plight of Kiribati shows that collective and aggressive action is needed now to stop new coalmines and phase out existing ones.