PBS Airs Must-See Episode about Climate Change and Kiribati: 'Paradise Lost'

tarawa lagoon

Image from luigig

It's easy to dismiss climate change as a threat when you live in a country that hasn't been affected much or that, at most, has only seen slight alterations. But what if you lived on one of the many South Pacific Islands? Climate scientists believe these islands will be some of the most at risk of succumbing to future sea-level rise—a gloomy scenario that may not be too far off (perhaps as early as 50 years from now), according to new research presented at the AGU conference in San Francisco this week. One of these vulnerable islands, Kiribati, is the setting for a must-see episode of PBS' Now show, (appropriately) entitled "Paradise Lost".

king tide kiribati

Image from Greenpeace

Kiribati is a small country made up of 33 islands scattered across an area of over 2 million square miles. Each is barely inhabited (the total population is around 100,000 people) and rises only about 7 feet—a little over 2 meters—above sea level. Little wonder that many believe the tiny island nation has already lost the fight against climate change. Even its brave president, Anote Tong, has essentially conceded the battle, noting during the show that: "It's too late for countries like us. If we could achieve zero emission as a planet, still we would go down".

The sad truth, as correspondent Mona Iskander noted, was that the small, poor countries that have contributed the least to climate change will be the first ones to suffer—and, in Kiribati's case, overwhelmed—because of it. io9's Michael Reilly had a good post a few months back (who knew a blog about science fiction covered global warming?) describing the plight faced by Kiribati and its residents:

Despite a couple of natural disasters involving hurricanes, river deltas and the destruction of cities, a lot of folks on Earth have a hard time believing that rising sea levels are a problem. Those people should talk to Anote Tong, the president of the island nation of Kiribati. He's convinced his country is going to be a modern day Atlantis by the end of the century, and last week he took the opportunity to ask the international community for help finding new places to live for himself and his 97,000 compatriots as their 33 atolls vanish into the sea.

Speaking at World Environment Day last week in Wellington, New Zealand, Tong issued the most stark plea yet that humanity figure out a way to stop global warming, arguing that it may be too late to save his country, whose highest point is only 2 meters above sea level.

Unfortunately, the besieged nation has received precious little help from the outside world so far—save for the great work of a few aid groups. The impacts from climate change the islands have already witnessed are pretty stark, as the following exchange demonstrates:

ISKANDER: He says, what the villagers told him was startling. Taro, a main food source, was getting harder to grow. Fish weren't as plentiful. And they were especially worried about what was happening to the coconut trees.

UEANTABO MACKENZIE: Coconut is—is in many parts of the Pacific—it's referred to as the tree of life. In Kiribati every—every part of the coconut is useful from its roots. People use for medicine. The trunk is used for building, and —the leaves are used for thatch and handicrafts. All sorts of things.

ISKANDER: The villagers told him that the coconut trees were dying off - either from salt water incursion or because erosion undermined the root systems. We saw evidence of this all along the shores of Kiribati.

The worst was here - this coconut grove has been contaminated with salt water from a broken sea wall. These lifeless tree stumps stand in a watery grave.

Salt water is also affecting drinking water - the most crucial resource. People get their fresh water through wells, but now, those wells are drying up and getting contaminated with salt water. Scientists have said people on these islands could die of thirst before they drown from sea level rise.

It's hard to overstate the significance of these changes—most of which have only taken place over the last 3 decades. One number that caught my attention during the broadcast was 6 million: that's the number of climate change refugees, displaced either by rising sea levels or intense storms, that U.N. officials expect to see by mid-century.

As dramatic as that figure may sound, even it may be underestimating the gravity of the situation. As I previously mentioned, a new study presented at this week's AGU conference determined that future sea-level rise this century would likely be much higher than the 0.18 to 0.58 meter projected in the most recent IPCC report. (Not that that was much of a surprise: Even the IPCC members later acknowledged that the unprecedented ice-sheet losses observed on Greenland and Antarctica rendered their projections moot.)

More about Kiribati and future sea-level rise
April 14th: Americans Demand Action on Climate Change
A Little Sea Level Rise Won’t Hurt Anyone, Will It?