Anote Tong is the President of Kiribati, a country of some hundred thousand citizens, which is disappearing under the sea. Kiribati (pronounced keer-ree-bahss) is made up of thirty-two atolls and a raised coral island that straddle the equator in the middle of the Pacific, and reach barely six and a half feet above sea level.
The country’s marine territory surrounding the small islands, which total two hundred and sixty-six square miles, is the size of India. When the tide is high, the water closes in ominously on the shores. Tong can look out at the ocean, turn around, and see ocean on the other side.
Several years ago, as a result of rising sea levels caused by climate change, the water rushed in, ripped apart a village, and drove its residents to higher ground. A few nights ago, on the island of Manhattan, Tong told me about the local church, which is all that’s left at the scene. “It’s sitting out there in the middle of the water, because there was a village around it, but it’s no longer,” he said. “And why it remains there is because I’ve asked the village to build a seawall so it doesn’t go, so it can bear testimony to what is happening.”
Tong, who is tanned, gray-haired, and mustachioed, wore a navy jacket, a plum tie, a pale pink shirt, and olive slacks. He spoke with the resignation of a spokesman for a lost cause. (Kiribati’s fate is settled; Tong gives it twenty years.)