What Chile Can Learn from Kiribati

In Chile, we are not oblivious to the reality of climate change, as unfortunately, we meet seven out of the nine vulnerability criteria established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is something we witness year after year in the form of extreme droughts, forest fires, floods, and loss of biodiversity, spanning across the entire continent. By Robert Currie and Matthias Erlandsen (*)

10 August 2023

Chile is going through another winter these days. However, on the other side of the planet, the Sonoran Desert, on the border between Mexico and the United States, recorded a temperature of 80.8 degrees Celsius, according to NASA’s measurements. July was the hottest month in history, surpassing all records since 1923 when the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) began documenting. Science tells us that heatwaves, wildfires, and floods are not coincidences or random events. For several years now, we have known that climate change is a reality that is hitting the world hard, particularly Latin America. While we are a region that doesn’t significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, we are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These effects are evident each year in the form of extreme droughts, forest fires, floods, and loss of biodiversity across the continent.

Kiribati is a country situated right in the center of the Pacific Ocean, with just 128,000 inhabitants and 811 square kilometers of land spread across 32 atolls and coral reefs. On average, these atolls and reefs are located just 2 meters above sea level. Isolated, quite literally, from the world’s troubles and responsible for less than 0.1% of greenhouse gas emissions – in comparison, Chile generates 0.3% – the people of Kiribati never imagined that they would become the primary victims of climate change.

The situation is dire, yet rarely known through mainstream media: In 2016, 81% of households in Kiribati reported experiencing climate impacts, directly affected by rising sea levels. On the island of Tarawa, the epicenter of a bloody battle during World War II, coastal homes are being abandoned as the water encroaches, and the coastline is lined with sandbags to try to protect homes and roads when the tide covers the limited habitable land.

Their former president, Anote Tong, made the cause of climate change the cornerstone of his government’s agenda from 2003 to 2016, also making it his primary foreign policy focus. Tong appeared at every international forum, urging other world leaders to collectively seek a solution before their land literally sank and, in the process, became the first environmental refugees in history due to the disappearance of a country.

Unfortunately, not many listened, and his negotiating and persuasive power were as small as his own nation, achieving only a Joint Implementation Plan for Climate Change and Disaster Management in 2019, two years after his term ended.

The challenge is to go beyond speeches, letters, joint statements, and diplomatic notes, seeking strategies that translate into concrete and quantifiable actions, beyond good intentions, in the face of a global problem with local effects that are not only climatological but also economic. For example, by the year 2050, the annual cost of inaction against climate change in the biodiversity sector will be $1.3 billion, mainly due to the loss of all the direct and indirect benefits that ecosystems provide to meet people’s needs, as indicated by a recent report from the CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean). Additionally, climate change exacerbates poverty and inequality: the poorest people live in areas more exposed to the impacts of climate change, they face greater losses from extreme weather events, and they have fewer resources to adapt to this phenomenon.

In this context, Chile now plays a crucial role, given its presence in various international forums and a more influential voice than that of President Tong. Through the “turquoise” foreign policy, promised during the presidential campaign and announced exactly a year ago in Magallanes as a key focus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ efforts, the country has a unique opportunity to become a leader in the international climate agenda in terms of adaptation. This can be achieved through tangible actions that allow Chile to spearhead significant changes in this field.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to pay attention to the most disadvantaged in a group and learn from their experiences. Let the example of Kiribati serve as a lesson that political will, regardless of the severity of climate change impacts in different countries, is insufficient to make significant strides on the international agenda. Unlike Kiribati, Chile presently holds a privileged position to make headway in this matter and assume a leadership role in Latin America. The journey towards a solution must persist, progressing before we also find ourselves wiped off the map by rising waters.

(*) By Robert Currie, Senior Public Affairs Consultant at Azerta, and Matthias Erlandsen from Flacso. This column was published in El Mostrador.