SARAH PRICE

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

Be­fore we set­tle into our seats at a Glebe pub, Anote

Tong hes­i­tates. “Can I give you my right ear?” he asks. His voice is calm and au­thor­i­ta­tive, with a deep res­o­nance. Tong dam­aged his hear­ing free div­ing in the sea sur­round­ing his home on the low-ly­ing Pa­cific is­lands of Kiri­bati. He is as you would ex­pect a diver to be: lean and hard­ened and brawny. His eyes are marked with ptery­giums from the sun.

Tong has been div­ing since child­hood. Spend­ing time un­der the ocean’s sur­face is one of the great­est joys in his life. “It opens a new world to you,” he says. He has a dozen grand­chil­dren, mostly girls. Life in Kiri­bati has a dif­fer­ent rhythm – few peo­ple have tele­vi­sion, ra­dio is ba­sic and ac­cess to in­ter­net is among the low­est in the world. Peo­ple fish and farm veg­eta­bles. They make crafts and sell their wares at mar­ket. “It is par­adise,” Tong says. Peo­ple have faith, fam­ily and com­mu­nity. They be­lieve God cre­ated their world, and that God will con­tinue to pro­tect it.

When Tong took of­fice as pres­i­dent in 2003, he be­gan to ad­vo­cate ac­tion on cli­mate change. In his part of the world he sees things – with in­creas­ing reg­u­lar­ity – that can­not be ig­nored: in­tense flood­ing, ero­sion, higher-en­ergy storms, wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion, the de­struc­tion of food crops. His fel­low I-Kiri­bati are build­ing sea­walls; with­out them, homes would be lost. Sci­en­tists pre­dicted Kiri­bati could be un­in­hab­it­able by 2050. That was be­fore the re­cent In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change re­port. “The IPCC re­port is even more dire,” Tong says. “It com­presses the time. I never be­lieved that we were go­ing to get away with it. I have al­ways be­lieved it was in­evitable. It is com­ing. And it is hap­pen­ing in a shorter time frame than orig­i­nally ex­pected.”

The science is clear, Tong says. He can­not un­der­stand why some lead­ers are still not lis­ten­ing.

They do not think about the next gen­er­a­tion, or the next coun­try. We ap­proach cli­mate change from na­tional per­spec­tives, yet it is a global prob­lem. We need to work out what is ac­cept­able to na­ture and what is not. “Aus­tralia is very well placed and has the po­ten­tial to pro­vide global lead­er­ship, and it needs to do that for the re­gion. Aus­tralia needs to con­sider if it wants to con­tinue to burn coal – which will de­stroy our home – or re­frain from do­ing it, and tran­si­tion to some­thing else. Your po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship does not be­lieve in cli­mate change. I don’t know where your cur­rent lead­er­ship is com­ing from on cli­mate change, but I find it very dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand.”

He con­tin­ues: “Your politi­cians are talk­ing about re­duc­ing the price of en­ergy, so they can get elected. There is noth­ing else that mo­ti­vates them.” The more Tong talks, the more I want to apol­o­gise. He came to Aus­tralia to ad­vo­cate ur­gent ac­tion on cli­mate change. At a Can­berra restau­rant with Phil Glen­den­ning,

Pa­trick Dod­son and three other men, he met Aus­tralia’s en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Melissa Price. Tong didn’t hear her now no­to­ri­ous re­marks. Every­one else at the ta­ble did. “I know why you are here, it’s for the cash,” Price said. “For the Pa­cific, it’s al­ways about the cash. I have my cheque­book here. How much do you want?”

I ask him about Price. “Ob­vi­ously she needs to learn a great deal more about the world around her,” he says. “If she came to Kiri­bati, I would be happy to show her what we do. Maybe she could be­gin to un­der­stand … and be less ar­ro­gant about it.”

Tong was nom­i­nated for the No­bel peace prize. He has met Barack Obama and Pope Fran­cis. In 2015, he spoke at the Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Paris. His mes­sage was, and is, the same: “This is not an eco­nomic is­sue; it is not sim­ply an en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue – it is an is­sue of sur­vival. It is about peo­ple. It is the great­est mo­ral chal­lenge fac­ing hu­man­ity. We can’t treat it as an equa­tion, or a profit-and-loss ac­count. We have to treat it as a mo­ral chal­lenge.”

Fam­ily is ev­ery­thing to his fel­low I-Kiri­bati, Tong says. No one lives alone. When some­one is in trou­ble, or in need, com­mu­nity mem­bers will go to their home to as­sist. It is like an obli­ga­tion. “I think that is the dif­fer­ence: peo­ple are more im­por­tant than putting money in your bank ac­count. It is not about me, it is about us.

“I said to my wife: ‘I wish I didn’t see this com­ing, be­cause then I wouldn’t worry.’ But I have no choice but to worry. Who is go­ing to worry if I don’t? We talk about what will hap­pen to the young ones. My wife has such con­fi­dence in me. She says: ‘You will work some­thing out. You can never give up.’”

Tong is look­ing for so­lu­tions. He has con­sid­ered a plan to build up the is­lands, and an­other to de­sign a float­ing is­land. When he was pres­i­dent he pur­chased land in Fiji. “I just keep try­ing. As long as you try you have hope. I be­lieve it can be done. It is just a mat­ter of get­ting the right so­lu­tions in place. I will con­tinue to ad­vo­cate. I need to find con­crete, cred­i­ble so­lu­tions that en­sure our peo­ple will be se­cure in the fu­ture. When the storms come, they’ll be above the storm, and when the

• tides come, they’ll be above the tide.”

SARAH PRICE is a Syd­ney­based writer.

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