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Some scientists are predicting that sea levels could rise as much as three feet due to global warming over the course of this century. Those estimates are not certain, but they're enough to have small island nations worried about their futures. If you live only a few feet above sea level, three feet sounds like a lot. And today we're going to visit one of those remote countries, called Kiribati.

It's a group of 33 tiny islands scattered across a vast area in the Pacific Ocean. As Brian Reed reports, it's a place where science clashes with religion.

BRIAN REED: From the sky, you can see why sea-level rise would frighten people in Kiribati. The islands look so tenuous, like strands of yarn floating on the sea. Nearly half the population is crammed onto just one of them - the capital, South Tarawa.

Already, drinking water and land are scarce. If you ask people, have you noticed any changes in the environment here, you get the same answers over and over. Here are three people I asked: Akka Rimon, Ata Merang and Jack Joe.

Ms. AKKA RIMON (Deputy Secretary of Labour): The weather, the changes in the weather. We hardly get any rainy seasons anymore.

Ms. ATA MERANG: Like now we expect rain but instead no rain. Really dry.

Ms. RIMON: And then it gets really, really dry and hot. There's a world crisis here. Water becoming salty or brackish.

Mr. JACK JOE: When the tide is up, it really runs through the sand and kills everything. Cabbages and tomato, things like that, cucumbers - gone.

REED: Scientists don't know if climate change is causing these problems, but they are the kinds of problems climate change is expected to cause. And yet even in a country that is on average just six-and-a-half feet above sea level, there are skeptics.

Teburoro Tito is a former president of Kiribati. Like many people here, he believes in the biblical account of Noah's ark. In case you don't remember how that stories ends, after destroying the Earth with a flood, God promises Noah he will never do that again. So Tito says he believes in global warming only to an extent.

Mr. TEBURORO TITO (Former Kiribati President): Saying we're going to be under the water, that I don't believe. Because people belong to God, and God is not so silly to allow people to perish just like that.

REED: What makes you laugh about that?

Mr. TITO: I laugh because I don't give in totally to science.

(Soundbite of people singing)

REED: He's not the only one. On Sundays, churches in South Tarawa are packed to the gills. Crowds of barefoot people kneel outside, singing along through the windows. Of the more than 90,000 people counted in the last census, 23 - not 23,000 - 23 said they did not belong to a church. So a lot of people here are torn between what they hear from scientists and what they read in the bible.

President ANOTE TONG (Kiribati): I've been questioned: You don't believe in God because God has promised there shall be no more floods.

REED: This is the current president of Kiribati, Anote Tong. Climate change is his signature issue at the United Nations.

Mr. TONG: There's always this deep desire to deny it, and I don't want to get trapped into that because that's an emotional reaction. My emotional reaction is, no, it will never happen. But the facts are there in front of us. The sea level rise is going to put us underwater, much earlier perhaps than we all anticipated.

(Soundbite of children playing)

REED: The remote outer island of Abaiang is so much like the Pacific isle of your dreams, it's almost a parody of itself. The lagoon is stunning - it's just from green to blue to turquoise. Men spear fish and eels and toss them into canoes. As the sun sets, children splash in the water. But there's a place on this island where you can see how vulnerable Kiribati is to changes in the ocean.

Mr. AATA MAROIETA: (Foreign language spoken)

REED: We're standing on an empty sandbar where Aata Maroieta's village used to be, Tebunginako. Now there's nothing but dead coconut trees and a crumbling sea wall. It feels like an ancient ruin. About 35 years ago, Aata says, the sea began to inundate this place. Again, scientists aren't sure how much climate change played a role in this, but eventually a big storm came and tore away the houses.

Mr. MAROIETA: (Foreign language spoken)

REED: Aata points the lagoon. That's where the maneaba was, he says, the big meetinghouse you find in every Kiribati village. Beyond that were even more houses.

If I go stand in the water, can you tell me when I'm standing where the maneaba used to be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of water splashing)

REED: I walk out 10 feet, 20...

Further than this?

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)

REED: Further? I'm raising my shirt up right now. I'm above my waist in water and I'm on my tip-toes.

Am I at the end of the maneaba yet?

Unidentified Woman: Yes, but the houses is further back.

REED: The houses were further than this?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

REED: Already Kiribati is preparing for the day when more of its villages could look like this.

Tomorrow we'll get a glimpse of that possible future: a government program that's helping people leave the country for fear of the rising seas.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Reed.

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