Wishful sinking

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Boys swim in a freshwater pond in Nanumea, disorder Tuvalu

Will atoll nations like Kiribati sink as sea level rises, or not?

The prevailing media narrative—which you encounter everywhere: in print, on air, online—is yes. And that narrative nearly prevailed in the choice of headline for my Kiribati story in National Geographic’s just-published climate change special issue.

Several months ago, my editor at the magazine sent me a layout of the story with a gigantic headline stretching across the opening spread: “Going, going, gone.”

I gulped. Only six months before I had written a story for National Geographic’s website that described scientific findings that more than 75 percent of atoll islands in the Pacific are maintaining their size or growing, despite slowly rising seas. I was deeply opposed to suggesting that these islands will soon be going down the oceanic gurgler.

I discussed with my editor the idea of putting a question mark after “gone.” But the problem with doing that, I felt, was that the familiar slogan contained such a strong message that merely adding a squiggly piece of punctuation at the end would scarcely dent its impact.

Psychologists have a term for this: confirmation bias, the tendency for the mind to interpret new information based on previous assumptions. Another cognitive bias (there are dozens of them; it’s surprising we can think straight at all, ever) would also come into play: the availability cascade, in which a collective belief gains increasing plausibility through constant repetition. Readers would expect to see a “disappearing islands” headline, I argued, and a question mark was unlikely to disturb that misperception.

I and one of the National Geographic researchers simultaneously came up with an alternative headline: “Against the Tide.” This appealed to me because not only is it the challenge that people of low-lying atolls face every month, as spring tides bring sea level within striking distance of coastal land and infrastructure, but also many I-Kiribati people are taking a stand against the tide of world opinion that their islands are doomed. They “refuse to think of their homeland as a ‘disappearing island nation,’ its fate already out of their hands,” I wrote in my story. “They do not think of themselves as ‘sinking islanders,’ rather as descendants of voyagers, inheritors of a proud tradition of endurance and survival.”

The editors approved the new headline, and the print magazine has duly been published with the title “Against the Tide” above the Kiribati story.

A fortnight ago, however, the headline battle was fought again, when the online version of the story appeared. It was published under the line “Water May Erase These Pacific Islands but Not their Culture.” Again my heart sank, and I begged the editors to erase the word “erase.”

Continue reading “Wishful sinking”

King tides, king hits

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Men working—seawall repairs at Temwaiku village in Tarawa

When sun, moon and earth are in alignment and in closest proximity to each other, the sea responds by producing the highest tides of the year, known as king tides. These tides can be 30 or 40 centimetres higher than a normal spring tide, and since that is the expected increase in global sea level by mid-century, today’s king tides show us what ordinary spring tides will be like in 2050.

For low-lying atolls like Tarawa, capital of Kiribati, that new baseline will be a problem. When I visited Tarawa in April 2015 to research a story on sea-level rise the islands were still repairing seawalls and re-armouring vulnerable areas of coastline after damage inflicted by a king tide in February. That event closed the maternity ward in one of Tarawa’s hospitals, not far from where a shipwreck was pushed ashore, piercing a seawall.

Photographs I took of the damage and repair work have just been published on National Geographic’s website, here.

The challenge for all low-lying atolls—indeed, for all coastlines—is that as the sea creeps higher, coastal defences such as seawalls and rock barricades will be more frequently and more severely tested, and in some cases the cost of protection will rise to untenable levels.

What then?

The rising seas of Kiribati

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Traditional and modern meet on the water in Tarawa lagoon

In April of this year I spent some time in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, researching a story on Pacific Islands and sea-level rise for a National Geographic special issue on climate change. Much of the content of that issue, on sale in November, is now available online, including my Kiribati story.

When a story, long in the production works, finally sees the light of day (or the light of a computer screen) it brings a flood of memories of people met, places seen, food eaten (sand worms!) and all the many experiences that a writer gathers up, like a fishing boat trolling through rich seas.

Fishing is a fact of daily life in Kiribati, of course. I remember standing in the check-in queue at Nadi airport, in Fiji, en route to Tarawa, and striking up a conversation with a Kiribati man who was getting boxes of kava root weighed, to see how many he could include in his luggage allowance. (Finely ground kava root, mixed with water, is a mild intoxicant that looks like mud and tastes like cardboard, and is hugely popular among Kiribati men, who down vats of the stuff every night while listening to karaoke at kava bars.)

I asked the man if he was a fisherman. He looked at me quizzically as if not quite grasping the word.

“Do you catch fish?”

He grinned. “Every man can catch fish,” he said.

So they can, and do. Every day I watched men (and sometimes women and children) setting nets near the shores of Tarawa lagoon, then walking around splashing the water to scare fish into them. More serious fishers make overnight or multi-day trips to other atolls. I hired one group of fishers to take me to Abaiang Atoll, and recorded some of that experience in my story. On the way, we stopped beside a huge commercial tuna fishing vessel that was anchored in the lagoon to buy a few skipjack to use for bait. While we waited, an old man in a traditional outrigger canoe—known in Gilbertese as a wa—paddled past with the same idea. That’s him in the photograph above.

I enjoyed seeing his feather-light handmade craft next to the industrial steel of the Japanese vessel, both painted the same lagoon blue.

Traditional ways and modern ways rub shoulders uneasily in the islands. Perhaps they do everywhere. Climate change brings into sharp and painful focus the inescapable influence of the industrialised world on remote islands. Remote geographically, but not atmospherically, as we are now all aware.

At the Paris climate summit in December, island leaders will try once more to sheet home the responsibility of the powerful developed nations to assist small island states to cope with the effects that global warming is already having, and will continue to have as the seas rise.