Bill Weir Takes Your Questions About Kiribati

April 4, 2007 — -- Thank you for your interest in Bill Weir's report from Kiribati and the "World News" series "Key to the World." Weir visited this remote nation, comprised of 33 islands, and spoke with its president, Anote Tong, who warns that his nation will be underwater in 50 years due to climate change.

The following is a selection of Weir's answers to your questions:

Question: What does the scientific community have to say about it? Not just an "oh they agree." A real official statement. Most people claim it is real or it is a hoax, like the leader from Kiribati who went to the United Nations and said it is a fact, a certainty, it will happen in 50 years. Sounds like more fear tactics. What do the facts say? -- James

Answer: The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes the world's top climatologists and meteorologists and their yearly sessions are attended by hundreds of peer-reviewed experts and government ministers. Before releasing each report, there must be a consensus (no small feat among scientists from different climates and economies).

Their last report in February declared, "Hotter temperatures and rises in sea levels will continue for centuries," and "the probability that this is caused by natural climatic processes alone is less than 5 percent."

While most scientists are reluctant to predict precise levels of sea rise, at the current rate water on the equator will go up at least three feet this century. This leads the IPCC to declare in a forthcoming report, "Hundreds of millions of people are vulnerable to flooding due to sea-level rise … the numbers affected will be largest in the megadeltas of Asia, but small islands face the highest relative increase in risk."

The president of Kiribati explained that he chose his midcentury deadline "for planning purposes." "I like to set a time at 50 years because we can't begin when the problem is on top of us … The response has to begin from now."

Speaking to the price being paid by poor equatorial nations, Henry I. Miller, a fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University told The New York Times this week, "Like the sinking of the Titanic, catastrophes are not democratic. A much higher fraction of passengers from the cheaper decks were lost. We'll see the same phenomenon with global warming."

Question: Have these islands ever been underwater before? -- Michael

Answer: Not to this extent.

Question: What a terrific story, and so tragic. The compelling speech that the president must have delivered should really resonate with the people who are quite literally compromising the sovereignty of this nation. Have you found that they wish to hold anyone financially or legally responsible for this? If someone invades another country, we go to war to stop them. What if someone wipes a country off the map? Who is held accountable for the loss of a culture, a nation, a society? -- Frank Buono

Answer: There have been rumblings that these small island nations might join together and take their case to the International Court of Justice. President Tong would confirm no such plans, telling me, "We are inexperienced in international legal affairs. We believe an international crime has been committed. And it's the result of action done elsewhere which is now impinging on us. In a somewhat extreme manner I alluded to this as equal terrorism. There is suffering as a result of action taken elsewhere."

Question: There are so many special things about the Kiribati culture and language. Their language is very robust and, unlike other Pacific peoples', not in danger of losing to English. But if they are scattered to the winds -- even en masse to Australia or New Zealand -- it may be hard for the traditions and the language to survive. The best hope is for some Pacific country with small islands to spare (Fiji?) to allow these atoll folk to inhabit them. Is there any such plan or strategy from the president to maintain their culture this way? I lived in Kiribati for two years and miss the people very much. I'm praying that the Kiribati president is wrong in his prediction. But a plan B -- many plan Bs! -- is necessary. -- Ken

Answer: The problem is space. Fiji has population problems of its own. A glib Aussie told me, "They can have the center of our country." Gallows humor, since much of central Australia hasn't had a decent rain in years (but that's another climate story). President Tong told me, "The strategy that I'd like to see beginning as soon as possible is to encourage the international community to provide assistance for us to educate our people, to train them so they can go to other countries as worthwhile citizens with skills to offer. In that way, it will be a gradual process of integration to other countries. But the question as to what happens to our sovereignty, I don't think anybody has the answer."

Question: Interesting story on Kiribati but the issue of the threats to small islands is actually a lot closer to us than you realize. A few years ago I remember the former ambassador from Antigua sounding the alarm regarding the threat to his country from the rising sea levels. Can the islands of the Bahamas be any safer?

Answer: The altitude of the Bahamas goes up to about 120 feet while the altitude on Kiribati is around six feet. Kiribati is also ON the equator, where the water is warmest and thus, highest. But all those gorgeous beaches everywhere are bound to get smaller.

Question: ABC/Mr.Weir, interesting story about Kiribati. I must confess that I had never heard of the country before. Your story did not convince me, however, that the tiny island nation is disappearing due to "global warming." Couldn't land so exposed to the ravages of the ocean just simply erode away over time? -- labtech7337, Lewis Center, Ohio

Answer: Maybe time and water has simply caught up to a 3,000-year-old civilization. Or, maybe the IPCC is right (see above) and this is the first generation to notice sudden changes for a reason.

Question: Hi Bill. When were you in Kiribati? I can't believe that I didn't hear about it. Tarawa is a really small place to miss news like that. I'm a U.S. citizen living in Kiribati now for nearly 10 years. No one can tell me that global warming isn't affecting Kiribati. I live right on the lagoon, not far from some of the places where you shot some photos, and even though we keep building up the sea wall higher and higher, the tides are still coming over it. My home has been in jeopardy and suffered damage time and time again. Waves washing through the house, if there's any kind of storm during high tide -- and the storms here are pretty mild. It is a serious issue for nations like Kiribati and nearby Tuvalu. Thank you for covering the issue. I sure would have liked to have met you when you came. Maybe next time … -- NeiTaean

Answer: I was there two weeks ago, and I hope to be back with my family someday. Your island is beautiful, with the most curious, playful children I've ever met.

Question: My father was stationed on Christmas Island in WWII, and he would be sad to hear of this as it was a place very dear to him. I was just researching this island last night so it is very poignant to see this story tonight. Thanks for your work, I have always wanted to visit this island my father spoke of so often. I guess I better hurry. Thanks. -- Rob

Answer: You can still see the rusted tanks and Japanese bunkers on Tarawa. I didn't make it to Christmas Island, but I understand your Dad's fondness.

Question: Dear Mr. Weir: This evening's report from Kiribati was very interesting to my husband and I as our daughter Patricia has been serving in the Peace Corps in Kiribati for the past 2 years. She lives on the island of Beru, which is southeast of Tarawa. We have had limited contact in the past 2 years and Patricia has written to us of the global warming issues. She is very concerned that her beloved island friends will be displaced in a very few years. This was the first very good video we have seen of the island and her way of life. Thank you for your interesting coverage. -- Eugenia

Answer: Thank you … and I hope you'll all watch next Monday's report from Zambia. You'll never think of childbirth the same way again.