Editor's Note: Brian Reed is NPR’s first Above the Fray Fellow. He’s reporting in the Pacific nation of Kiribati and will be filing some dispatches while he’s off in one of the most remote countries on earth.
A group of local volunteers gathered this week to install a new sign on South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati.
The marker is meant to catch the attention of delegates from more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., who arrived in Kiribati today for the Tarawa Climate Change Conference, a minor prelude to the full-scale climate talks in Cancun at the end of the month.
If you haven’t heard of Kiribati — which is pronounced KEER-ih-biss, by the way — don’t feel bad. One woman told me her I-Kiribati friend was detained at a German airport because the customs agent didn’t believe her passport was from a real country.
But I can testify that Kiribati is indeed a real country, because I’m in it: sitting on a sliver of land roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii.
It’s a nation of 32 coral atolls and one island that, when you add them up, are about the size of New York City, scattered across more than a million square miles of ocean. Here’s what that looks like on a map (feel free to make liberal use of the zoom button):
The average elevation of South Tarawa, where about half of the country’s 100,000 residents live, is 6.5 feet. Which means at 10 feet, the "highest point," is essentially just a bump in the road.
The fact that Kiribati is so small and low-lying makes it particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including sea level rise, intense weather events, and increasingly erratic seasons.
Anote Tong, Kiribati’s president, has been vocal on the subject, saying his country’s very existence is at stake, and the conference here is his latest attempt at getting the international community to act more urgently and rigorously towards a new climate change agreement. Tong has even said it may already be too late for Kiribati, and his government is considering various relocation schemes should the population eventually have to move en masse.
I’m in Kiribati for a month with the support of the John Alexander Project, a foundation that’s partnered with NPR to send young journalists to far-flung regions of the globe. I’ll be at the climate talks tomorrow, but mostly I’m here to find out how a country reacts when it might disappear. I’ll have some radio pieces, and some dispatches on this blog. But in the meantime, here’s last night’s sunset: