The leader of the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati laid out an extraordinary plan Monday (Sept. 22) that would scatter his people through the nations of the world as rising sea levels submerge the islands they have called home for centuries.

President Anote Tong said the half-meter sea level rise projected by climate scientists over the next century would submerge a significant proportion of the land on which his people live. Salinization of ground water due to rising seas would render even more land uninhabitable.

Kiribati is made up of 33 islands that straddle the equator in the vast South Pacific Ocean. Most of Kiribati’s islands are coral atolls — low, circular islands built on reefs that remain above water when the original mountainous islands they surround erode into the sea. Consequently, most of Kiribati’s territory lies within two meters of sea level.

“Most [islands] are so narrow that if you stand on the ocean side and shout, the people on the lagoon side will hear you,” Tong said.

Tong spoke at the Science Center as part of the Harvard University Center for the Environment’s “Green Conversations” lecture series. The event, which drew several hundred to the hall, was hosted by Center for the Environment Director Daniel Schrag and featured Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography James McCarthy, who questioned Tong after his formal remarks concluded.

“Kiribati faces going out of existence because of climate change, and that is extraordinary,” Schrag said.

Tong’s plan to relocate Kiribati’s 100,000 people was born, Tong said, out of the realization that he had to do something. If scientists are right, his nation is facing a humanitarian crisis and the world isn’t paying attention, he said. Kiribati residents have already seen unusual natural events that could be due to climate change, such as higher tides, coral bleaching, and a recent 12-month drought.

The government plans to continue to repair damaged public buildings on the waterfront but is advising private entities and residents to move back from the shoreline. The problem is that they are running out of room.

“We are in danger of falling off the other side if we keep moving back,” Tong said.

Tong said he is sometimes frustrated by the lack of response he’s received. Though Kiribati is one of the world’s lowest emitters of greenhouse gases, it will be one of the first areas to feel the effects of changes brought on by industrialized nations. Even so, Tong said, when he talks about the coming humanitarian disaster, other nations only want to talk about terrorism or the economic impact of steps to curb global warming.

“While it may be a matter of economics for some of you, for us it’s not economics; it’s a matter of survival,” he said.

Though it may be too late to head off the sea level rise that would be disastrous to Kiribati, Tong urged other nations to take steps to curb climate change. And, despite the ecological problems the nation faces, Kiribati is still working to safeguard the Earth’s natural heritage, recently creating the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.

“That is our contribution to humanity. We are waiting for a contribution from any country of a piece of land so we can move to it,” Tong said.

Despite his frustration, Tong said he realized that anger wouldn’t help his people. While Tong would prefer that some nation step up and offer land that Kiribati’s people could call their own, he realizes that is unlikely to happen. His backup plan, he said, is more likely to be palatable to governments around the world.

“As a leader, what do you do? Tell them to wait for the water to come and they will drown and I will drown with them? What we want to do is deal with it now. It would be silly to do nothing,” Tong said.

Tong’s proposal would have groups of Kiribati citizens — perhaps 1,000 per year — receive job training and then seek skilled jobs in other nations. They would form a dispersed resource that others could turn to as the environmental situation becomes critical at home.

Job training is an important component of his plan, he said, because he would like the dispersal to occur methodically and with as much dignity as possible; he does not wish for his people to wind up as environmental refugees.

The plan has already begun to be implemented, with small groups of nurses going to Australia for training and other workers to New Zealand.

“Hopefully, our people will spread out so that when the time comes they will assist with the integration of [the rest of our] people into their communities … and also make it easier on the host country,” Tong said.