Evacuating Paradise

Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the nation of Kiribati.

As reported in several news sources today, the island nation of Kiribati in the central Pacific is considering relocating its entire population elsewhere because of rising sea levels. President Anote Tong is in talks with Fiji to purchase land that could absorb at least some of Kiribati’s population, which is currently just over 100,000.

That’s a hard thing for a person to get their head around. I’ve been there—to Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, as a Sea Education Association student. If anything, that makes getting my head around it even harder. Kiribati is a real place: sleepy towns and friendly people and coconut plantations and outrigger fishing boats, all on low, low islands made of coral and coral rubble and sand. The islands are not quite idyllic. Some are too crowded, the waters around some are overfished, and all are quite poor. But they don’t look like a disaster area, a place resorting to desperate gambits to survive. They look like, well, a tropical paradise. And yet the people are coming up with plans to evacuate it.

I’m afraid that 100,000 people is tough number to relocate. Can so many people find places to take them, especially if it has to happen more or less all at the same time? And can so few maintain their culture if they are scattered across the western Pacific? I also wonder what number of people in the United States and the rest of the industrial world would have their lives totally uprooted by limits on fossil fuel combustion. Uprooted—as in forced from their homes, which sink underwater behind them. More than 100,000? More than 100,000, plus the populations all the other threatened Pacific island nations? The population of the coastal plains of Bangladesh?

During the early Cold War, Britain and the US used the eastern end of Kiritimati as a proving ground for atomic weapons. A collective 30 megatons of the most destructive weapons ever created didn’t budge the island. But the relentless heavy breathing of our industrial civilization might cause it to wash away. That’s hard to get your head around.

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