Behind the Scenes
On July 12th 2012, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that 97% of Greenland’s ice sheet surface had melted. Concerned, the scientific community convened in London to analyze the results. That number – that reality – exceeded the most pessimistic forecasts. Alarm bells were set off.
During that same period, in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, precisely 12,000 kilometres away from Greenland, the governments of the Republic of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands grappled with the fact that, little by little, their land as a whole was being submerged by rising sea levels. These low-lying atoll nations’ average are merely a few feet above sea level and their entire populations are facing the very real threat of evacuation in the next century.
The Republic of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands are our 21st century canaries, standing on the front lines of global climate change. While some still cast doubt on the role human activity played in tragedies such as the Philippines’ historic typhoon, Pakistan’s monster floods, severe droughts in the Amazon or Hurricane Sandy, which swept through North America’s East Coast, the correlation between rising sea levels and melting ice has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. New York, Mumbai, Tokyo or even Shanghai could be one of the first affected metropolises among the planet’s 136 major coastal cities, which account for tens of millions of people. Not to mention the costs related to the destruction of assets, which are evaluated at three billion dollars, thus causing another horrific catastrophe – an economic one.
Some will argue that the solution is to plan without delay for the safe relocation of the affected populations. That’s precisely what Mr. Tong and his government in Kiribati have been doing, securing parcels of land in Fiji. But the profound ties that bind a people to its land can’t so easily be packed up and relocated elsewhere come moving day. If nothing drastically changes in mankind’s relationship with the planet, the 22nd century could be remembered for ushering in the first agonizing wave of climate change refugees.
By 2100, four nation-states – Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and the Maldives – run the risk of entirely disappearing under water.
by Matthieu Rytz
In 2012, I visited the Panamanian archipelago known as the Guna Yala, consisting of over 375 islands. There, I was confronted for the first time with a people whose land was about to disappear, and I decided to begin working on a photo essay, which was eventually published in the New York Times. I felt both righteous anger at the injustice of the situation and a sense of powerlessness in the face of such an inevitable outcome. I decided that I wanted to explore this issue in a greater depth.
Five years ago, I could not locate the Republic of Kiribati on a map and I realized that I knew next to nothing about the island nations of the South Pacific.
I traveled to Kiribati in January 2014 for the first time and spent the month photographing the islands, documenting the lives of the people there. On the last day of my trip, I met President Anote Tong and I was absolutely amazed by his incredible charisma, as well as the colossal task he had ahead of him: saving an entire national from total annihilation. In that moment, I knew that photography would not be enough to tell the story, so I decided to embark on a colossal task of my own: making my first feature documentary Anote’s Ark.
It was the starting point of an incredible life journey as I eventually became part of the Presidential Delegation of Kiribati travelling the globe to meet world leaders like President Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Abe and His Holiness the Pope, to name a few. This incredible access gave me a unique chance to tell the story of a great leader who is fighting for the survival of his people.
"Climate change is the greatest
moral challenge for humanity.
We haven't risen to the challenge."
- Anote Tong
"For those of us on the front lines, it really does not matter what is agreed to in Paris, because we will continue to go underwater."
- Anote Tong
It became clear that I also needed to contrast the realities of President Tong with a grassroots story. I met Sermary, a mother of six who lost her home due to rising sea levels as a result of climate change. She was in the process of preparing to leave her homeland after being chosen via lottery as one of the 75 Kiribati citizens granted a visa to live and work in New Zealand. She is the perfect example of the many people on the front lines who will need to evacuate coastline areas in order to find a safer land. Sermary’s story will soon become universal as hundreds of millions of people confront a similar fate.
She generously shared her story over the course of the filming of Anote’s Ark, raising awareness about the plight of her people, as well as the island-dwellers who will eventually be affected by climate change. Coinciding with the release of the film, we started a Go Fund Me campaign in an attempt to make a concrete difference in her life and that of her children, by raising funds for her children’s education.
Can technology save Kiribati ?
Kiribati, despite the fact that it has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world, is a heartbreaking case study of a community that will lose their entire territories due to climate change. Based on the latest scientific consensus, the people of Kiribati will have to abandon their ancestral homeland as the tide continues to rise. The people of Kiribati are not only facing the loss of their land, but also their language and culture. A people losing its land in a sense loses itself. I strongly believe that by losing the land of Kiribati, we will lose a part of ourselves too.
The science is clear : there is enough gas in the atmosphere to ensure that the ocean will continue to rise and will undoubtedly provoke an colossal migration crisis. Hundreds of millions of people around the world will have to leave their homes, and this is just the beginning. Our influence on biodiversity is unprecedented, and as humanity is devouring the resources of planet Earth, we are all observing the 6th extinction unfold in front of our eyes, on our screens, and in our backyards. A variety of solutions are being proposed to mitigate the devastating impact of climate change. One of the more drastic proposals was put forth by the Japanese engineering corporation Shimizu who proposed a mass relocation to a Floating Island, using technology that has yet to be invented.
We may have even a bigger problem: politicians in the USA, Australia, Brazil, Philippines and the world over, are using obsolete anti-climate change rhetoric to seduce a conservative electorate. This is also happening in Kiribati. The new government has radically different views on climate change from its predecessor and is actively trying to repeal President Tong’s climate change policies. When I travelled back to Kiribati in December 2017 to show the completed film to the community, the current government confiscated my projector and laptop and proceeded to deport me from the country. They also tried to block the film from being shown at Sundance 2018, doing what they could to try to prevent this film from being seen by a local and international audience.
I feel disillusioned that the world’s leaders are not yet unified to make bold steps towards solutions in order address the climate crisis. The future of humanity is at stake and the story of Kiribati is strong proof of that. We are at a crossroads and the question we must ask ourselves is : should we listen to those canaries on the front lines or continue to bury our heads in the sand ?