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Misrepresenting Kiribati and climate change

by Suzy McKinney

The case of the I-Kiribati man Ioane Teitiota being deported after failing to become the world’s first climate change refugee in the Supreme Court of New Zealand is unfortunate, but is not unfair and misrepresents the reality of climate change to Kiribati in a harmful way.

I’m a self-proclaimed climate activist – I protested at the UN climate negotiations in Peru last year and submitted to the Ministry for the Environment’s consultation process calling for ambitious action on climate change. I am also currently living in Kiribati, working at the hospital here as part of my medical training.

My climate change activist friends back in New Zealand think this man being deported is disgraceful. Although the long-term impacts of climate change upon Kiribati are certainly disgraceful, Teitiota’s deportation is not and to think so is to misunderstand the unique situation that these low-lying islands and their proud peoples face.

Yes, people who live in Kiribati are absolutely the “vulnerable of the vulnerables” and are experiencing unjust hardship due to rising sea levels, ocean acidification, temperature extremes and adverse weather events. There will come a time when their lives are directly threatened by climate change - but this has not yet occurred.  Yes, there are issues with overcrowding, sanitation and clean water in Kiribati – but the resilient and cheerful people here live contented lives within their rich culture and the development issues that affect Kiribati people are not unique and are largely not due to climate change.

It would be unfair for me to speculate as to Ioane Teitiota’s reasons for originally leaving Kiribati, or how much of a role the impacts of climate change at home played in his decision to fight to stay in New Zealand. I can only observe the comments of those I-Kiribati people involved in climate advocacy here and quote to you the words of Pelenise Alofa, National Coordinator of Kiribati’s Climate Action Network – “no one has ever left Kiribati because of climate change”.

I feel for Teitiota – his children were born in New Zealand, his life is in New Zealand and he very understandably does not want to go back home. But for one I-Kiribati man to claim to be a “climate change refugee” is to misrepresent Kiribati and cause harm to people working passionately on the issue of climate change here.

This claim misleads the public about what our current response to Kiribati’s climate problems should be. Research carried out in Kiribati shows that I-Kiribati people want to continue to live in their country for as long as possible and desire adaptation projects such as sea walls that will allow them to do so, rather than to flee Kiribati in 2015. The failure of Teitiota’s claims make it harder for people working to protect Kiribati’s climate to secure assistance and funding for the adaptation projects the country really needs .

Teitiota’s case also fundamentally misrepresents how I-Kiribati people want to respond to climate change in the long term. The culture and identity of the I-Kiribati people is deeply connected to their land and if the people of these islands have to move because of rising sea levels, they want to move as a group to another island, a new Kiribati, and resettle with dignity. They do not want to and should not have to flee climate change as individuals migrating to various other lands, and do not identify as victims but as a strong community of people jointly affected by large forces beyond their control.

As an observer here in South Tarawa, Kiribati, I see anger at Teitiota for his actions and the words he has spoken about his country. I see resentment for him from civil society here for the way his court case has mischaracterized how I-Kiribati people want to respond to climate change.

Teitiota’s claims are a harmful outlier to Kiribati’s reality. The people of Kiribati don’t want to leave yet, and need our help to stay and to adapt to the changing climate with dignity for as long as they can. They are not refugees and they don’t wish to be – they are people who need the international community to take urgent action on climate change to protect their islands and their sovereignty, and people who want nationwide resettlement with dignity rather than a slow process of flight and the label of being a refugee. 

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