Tiny Island Makes Climate a Priority Palau, a tiny island nation 600 miles southeast of the Philippines, boasts incredible biodiversity and some of the world's best diving — and it is on the frontline of the global-warming debate.
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Tiny Island Makes Climate a Priority

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Tiny Island Makes Climate a Priority

Tiny Island Makes Climate a Priority

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Rebecca Roberts.

It's time now for Climate Connections. Our year-long project with National Geographic about how climate shapes people and how people shape the climate. This month, we're exploring the Pacific, hearing from people like climate activist Pineda Namada(ph) who lives in the Matatao(ph) Islands.

Ms. PINEDA NAMADA (Climate Activist): It is amazing the changes that I've seen that people are not aware of. We don't have anywhere to go to. I mean, if it happens in New York, you guys can migrate any other places in the world. In small countries like ours, it's just miles of seas around and it's closing in.

Mr. MELKWAR METAKI(ph) (Scientist, Solomon Islands): We are part of an ocean. The island itself is part of the ocean. And in some places, you just go throw a stone from one side of the island to another. So life itself revolves around the ocean. But when we have the oceans turn against us, it is a will challenge.

Ms. DIANE McFABIAN (Scientist, Cook Islands): In some communities, I mean, they actually questioned us and said, oh, why are you so concerned about the weather, you know. The weather is something that God worries about. You know, you almost feeling against God by talking about these types of things. But now, there's a lot of increased awareness, and the churches in the Pacific are actually talking to people and say, yes, that is God's realm to look after the weather. But I talk about how humans now, unfortunately, having an influence in kind of interfering with God's plan.

ROBERTS: We also heard from scientist Melkwar Metaki from the Solomon Islands and Diane McFabian from the Cook Islands.

SIEGEL: Today, we focus on the Republic of Palau. It's about 600 miles southeast of the Philippines. It consists of 200 islands and it's home to about 20,000 Palauans. It was administered by the U.S. until independence in 1994. To this day, Palauans serve in the U.S. armed forces in proportionately huge numbers.

And back home, they live increasingly of the tourist industry.

President TOMMY REMENGESAU (Palau): We support the tourism industry of some 80,000 tourists a year.

SIEGEL: Eighty thousand tourists a year?

President REMENGESAU: Eighty thousand, yeah. And most of their activities has to do with diving, scuba diving, but more are coming for the snorkeling, for the sports fishing and for the eco-tourism activities on the island.

SIEGEL: That's the president of Palau, Tommy Remengesau. He was in Washington recently and he stopped by to talk about his country's extraordinary experience on the frontline of global warming. A few years ago, unusually warm temperatures and rising sea levels killed off about a quarter of the coral reefs around Palau. And as President Remengesau says, no coral reefs could mean no Palau.

Pres. REMENGESAU: If the reefs close, so close the economy. It's not just the economy, but the livelihood and really, the sustainability of the island nations.

SIEGEL: That's it.

Pres. REMENGESAU: That's it. In a nutshell, that's it. The environment is our economy. The economy is our environment. There's no ifs and buts about it.

SIEGEL: If there were no effective policy to, in some way, control global warming or slow it down, can't you - you can imagine your country, I assume, just becoming a, well, a place that people live? Do I have that right? I mean, have you thought about the possibility that Palau could come to an end if its climate were to degrade?

Pres. REMENGESAU: Well, it's not just thinking about it. It's a real threat for us. And to us, we live with this threat every day. It's like a dark cloud hanging over our head. And we're not visioning it. We're experiencing it. So there's the - we're seeing it in our neighbors; when you see an island, the whole island in Tuvalu being disappeared; when you see an island in Kiribati disappearing so that you have to relocate several hundred people and there are nowhere to place them. Those are real issues, you know.

When you see in Palau a drought that lasts four months, so that we practically have to ask international help to bring in this water desalination, things to give us water. I mean, these are very real issues that we live and sleep and eat with, and it just buckles the mind that what happens if this trend has not stop. Where will the future generations of Palau be? Will they have a place to stay? Will they have an economy to live or are they all are going to move to outside - to the United States and seek employment because there's nothing there in Palau?

SIEGEL: It's serious prospect than one that…

Pres. REMENGESAU: It is a matter of survival. It's a matter of survival.

SIEGEL: You're in an interesting situation. I mean, when we think of global warming and the countries that are contributing to it, most we think of the enormous economy of the United States or the enormous population and growing economy of China, the economies of - you're a country of 20,000 people. You may be on the receiving end of all this, but what can you do about it? I mean, you're a tiny player on the world stage?

Pres. REMENGESAU: Well, that's why we're taking matters into our own hand. And I'm very happy to say that there is an initiative that we have recently undertaken. We call it the Micronesian challenge - nothing to do with any physical fight, but…

SIEGEL: It's not extreme sports, you say?

Pres. REMENGESAU: it's not extreme sport, but Micronesian challenge is a very aggressive conservation initiative that would basically set aside 20 percent of our terrestrial resources and 30 percent of our near shore marine ecosystem under effective conservation measures. This is very important because it has been supported and signed on by the five entities composed the Micronesian region, which comprise about five percent of all the oceans in the world and cover 6.7 million square miles. So this is really our efforts to recognize that there is a problem with our development. There is a problem with global warming and climate change. And so we need to set aside protected areas that can ensure that our culture, our livelihood, our economies will be there - not just for us - but for future generations to come.

SIEGEL: Are you cheered by the attention that global warming is receiving nowadays around the world, or you're disturbed by how little attention is being given?

Pres. REMENGESAU: Well, we're both encouraged and discouraged, I think. Certainly, the commitment is there, although we think there could be more done. The United States can play a major role in taking the leadership among the industrialized nations of the world to support the international efforts to deal with mitigation, to deal with adaptation especially for the close friends of the United States that are on the frontline. And when I say the frontline, those of us who are already experiencing this phenomenon and could be the window of what will actually be happen to the rest of the world.

SIEGEL: Well, President Remengesau, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Pres. REMENGESAU: Thank you. Appreciate this opportunity, sir.

SIEGEL: That's the president of Palau, Tommy Remengesau.

Next Monday, NPR's Christopher Joyce reports from Fiji.

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