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A leader, a polar bear, and the shock of recognition

Tuesday, September 30, 2014 13:46
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President Anote Tong of the Pacific Island nation Kiribati visits the retreating high Arctic glacier Nordenskioldbreen, on Svalbard. 09/18/2014 © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

We had only been on the rock next to the melting Nordenskiöld glacier for a few minutes when I looked up and saw a white furry head looking down at me from a cliff 60 meters away.

Polar bear at the retreating high Arctic glacier Nordenskioldbreen, on Svalbard. 09/18/2014 © Christian Åslund / GreenpeaceOur polar guide, who had scouted the area in advance and given clearance was startled and screamed: “Back to the boats! Polar bear!” Most of the crew were intimidated, some panicked but I did not feel any sense of threat. I had come a long way from home in the warm Pacific to this part of the world in the Arctic but I felt that this polar bear was reaching out to me, welcoming me to his environment!

He laid peacefully up on the cliff just looking down on me and as I gazed into his eyes I felt a connection, as if we shared something in common – that our future survival on this planet would depend on our ability to arrest the escalating pace of climate change.

My home country Kiribati is a series of beautiful atoll islands which are very low lying and highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly that of sea level rise. According to the projections of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, the sea level will rise between 0.6 to 1.0m within the century, a scenario which means that much of our islands would be under water.

But in reality we are already feeling the impacts of climate change resulting in the displacement of some of our communities with others to follow soon as serious coastal inundation and contamination of the fresh water lens becomes more frequent and more severe.

Aerial View of Tarawa Island in Kiribati. 07/12/2014 © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

Whether we like it or not the reality is that some if not most of our population will have to be relocated beyond our borders as these impacts become even more severe as time goes on. We have already started to plan for this eventuality formulating strategies that will see those of our people who choose to do so, to migrate with dignity.

My visit to the Arctic is to witness first-hand the source of what is affecting my country and to understand the connection between the melting of these massive sheets of ice and the rise in sea level in our part of the world.

It is a wonderful experience to be here but also a little bit intimidating. I was fascinated by the beauty of the environment but I could also feel the sheer arrogance and uncompromising nature of the harsh landscape. It struck me that whoever had created all of this had intended that it should all be in balance and any disturbance of that harmony in the system would have disastrous consequences for all in it.

Climate change is a problem that requires a global solution. And it is a problem that requires remarkable global leadership if it is to be adequately addressed.

In spite of the unequivocal scientific information available, many people and governments remain unprepared to take the measures necessary to mitigate the impacts of climate change; perhaps not until they believe their own world is being threatened.

But to imagine that these massive ice sheets in the Arctic regions have already begun to melt, as stated in more recent reports, gives me serious cause for concern for the Polar ice as an immense system and unlikely ever to be reversible. The consequences for countries like Kiribati and other low lying countries and cities worldwide would be unimaginable – it would be a disaster of unprecedented proportions.

As I looked back to where the polar bear was laying before, leaving the glacier I thought to myself “Is this our shared destiny? Is this to be the end of our world?”

President Anote Tong of Kiribati in the Arctic. 09/17/2014 © Christian Åslund / GreenpeaceAnote Tong is the President of Kiribati.

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