The future for Kiribati, one of the low-lying Pacific nations threatened by rising seas, is so dire that the government is contemplating relocating the entire population to man-made islands resembling giant oil rigs.
"We're considering everything... because we are running out of options," the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, said yesterday in Auckland, where he is attending the Pacific Islands Forum. He said that his small, impoverished country – where the highest land is no more than two metres above sea level – urgently needed the world to take action on climate change.
Vulnerable Pacific nations have acquired a powerful new ally, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who visited Kiribati on his way to the Auckland conference. In a speech on Tuesday, Mr Ban warned: "For those who believe climate change is about some distant future, I invite them to Kiribati. Climate change is not about tomorrow. It is lapping at our feet – quite literally in Kiribati and elsewhere." Beachside villages in Kiribati – which consists of 33 coral atolls sprinkled across two million square miles of ocean – have already had to move to escape the encroaching waves. Water supplies have been contaminated by salt water, and crops destroyed. Erosion, caused partly by storms and flooding, is increasingly serious.
Mr Tong said he had seen models of a man-made floating island, similar to an offshore oil platform and costing US$2bn (£1.25bn). While it sounded "like something from science fiction", he said radical ideas had to be considered. "If you're faced with the option of being submerged with your family, what would you do?" he asked. "Would you jump on the rig... on a floating island or not? I think the answer is yes."
Other ideas included building a series of sea walls, at a cost of nearly $1bn. But Mr Tong said it would be up to the international community to fund such projects, and he complained that Kiribati had received little financial aid despite pledges from wealthier nations.
A former British colony called the Gilbert Islands, Kiribati is home to 103,000 people, most of them crammed into the main atoll, Tarawa, a horseshoe-shaped chain of islets surrounding a central lagoon. Like other pancake-flat Pacific nations such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, and Indian Ocean nations such as the Maldives, it faces oblivion as a result of global warming-induced rising sea levels.
Mr Tong said that for i-Kiribati, as his countrymen are known, it was no longer a case of adapting to a changing environment, but of survival. He said Kiribati desperately needed the world to act to reduce carbon emissions.
Mr Ban said his visit to Kiribati had strengthened his view that "something is seriously wrong with our current model of economic development". He said: "We will not succeed in reducing emissions without sustainable energy solutions."