'Our existence might be in jeopardy': How Kiribati is being swallowed by rising seas

Drone footage shows how close the tide now is to main public roads and homes on Kiribati - a Pacific island barely two metres above sea level

The frontline of the climate crisis doesn’t always resemble a disaster zone. The nation of Kiribati - deep in the Pacific Ocean - can look on the surface like a tropical paradise.

And yet this idyllic country, made up of 33 low lying islands, is destined to become the first victim of climate change, on track to be swallowed by rising sea levels.

Its former president, Anote Tong, couldn’t make it to the COP26 climate conference because of Covid restrictions, but speaking from home, he told ITV News that beyond 2030 “our very existence might be in jeopardy”.

Since knowing that I would be covering the climate summit in Glasgow I’ve been thinking about Anote Tong a lot. I met him when I was chairing an event for the Science Museum.

He appeared from Kiribati alongside guests from Alaska and here in the UK - including a leading climate change expert, Julia King.

"By 2030 we should expect some serious problems... beyond that, our very existence might be in jeopardy" says Anote Tong

When I asked how hopeful they were about the future, and the possibility of success at COP26, there was some optimism from everyone but Mr Tong, who said his hopes for the future had slumped to just four out of 10.

As he spoke, he said the sea was lapping up at his front door.

Videos show residents in Kiribati - pronounced Kiribass - describing moving several times, with their previous homes “now in the sea”. A road has also been lost to the water and they have suffered from contaminated water and drought.

Residents talk of the desperate need to save their island.

“It is not just about being alive… it is about a country and a people called the Kiribati People”, said one woman, filmed for a video to highlight their plight.

As we enter the final push in Glasgow it is the reality facing the people in places like Kiribati on the minds of climate campaigners like Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.

“Behind the beautiful pictures of these islands are villages and families whose very cultures are at threat, who can lose everything,” she said, arguing that the burning of fossil fuels in the West was now forcing islanders to question whether they can stay in their homes or will need to relocate en masse.

“These islands are the victims of climate crime.”

"We are seeing greater intensity" of storms and floods

When she and others look at the wording of the UK presidency’s first draft text, they are thinking first about what it means for the most vulnerable countries.

In the wording that emerged in the early hours of Wednesday morning, one thing was hugely welcomed - the inclusion of a call on governments to “accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”.

That is the first time that fossil fuels have ever been included in an UNFCCC climate summit text - and now its up to negotiators to keep it there - with one source admitting the wording will come under “intense pressure”.

But while they welcome that - they believe much more is needed to support countries like Kiribati to adapt to protect themselves against climate change - and to help fund recovery from loss and damage.

After all, even at 1.5 degrees, Kiribati is critically threatened. So far - the promises here - fall short, according to Morgan.

“The support for adaptation can give [vulnerable countries] a fighting chance to hold on to their islands and their histories. That can be anything from early warning systems for storms, to desalinisation plants, to climate resilient seeds so they can grow foods. This is about very basic human needs.”

Mr Tong warned: "We have very serious challenges ahead of us"

One hope is that half of the £100 billion in financing from the richer countries will be diverted to adaptation and not just the reduction for emissions - and that countries will promise to deliver £500 billion over five years from 2021-25 (as the £100 billion annual target is running late).

There is also pressure to include language that binds countries to an accelerated timetable for raising their climate ambitions; not just asking them politely to up their game next year but demanding they do so.

That would help ensure better climate plans ahead of a global stock take of where we are in 2023 - two years ahead of the next big, ambition raising COP in 2025. The need for speed is the distance the world still needs to go in cutting emissions before 2030.

Sepi Golzari-Munro, acting director at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said we were already witnessing the life-threatening impacts of climate change - particularly in poorer countries, with warnings that we could still be on track for heating of 2.4 degrees or worse.

She called the inclusion of fossil fuels a “historic first” but said that the ambition on reducing emissions must also be matched with “an equal drive on a finance, adaptation or loss and damage package for developing nations.”

“Without greater ambition here, this text could force vulnerable countries into an unholy alliance with high-emitting climate blockers, sending the Glasgow deal up in smoke,” she said, warning the remaining hours of negotiations were “critical”.

“If the US and EU truly want to keep the deal afloat, they need to deliver a life raft for developing countries, not simply leave them to sink or swim.”

That warning will be felt most acutely in a country like Kiribati.