-- That his 33-island country is already feeling the effects of sea-level rise and has lost villages, islands and buildings.
-- That Kiribati will soon be washed away by the waves. “Tong gives it 20 years,” reports a New Yorker interviewer.
-- That, in an act of visionary statesmanship aimed at improving his chances of getting him the Nobel Peace Prize,Tong bought land in Fiji’s Vanua Levu, a steep volcanic island, so his people will have somewhere to go when their islands become unlivable.
Tong was able to make these assertions to CNN, in an interview with a New Yorker web page reporter, both in June just as he did to Bloomberg Businessweek last year and to The Nation four years ago.
Amazingly, it occurred to no one to check his claims.
When I interviewed the scientists called geo-morphologists who study how coral atolls evolve, they rolled their eyes and cited several studies that showed that the sea-level rise so far in the Pacific – about 15 cm – has had no effect so far on atolls. The problems described by Tong are in fact entirely due to his own poor coastal management, one study says.
As for the future, the geo-morphologists agree that far from causing atolls to disappear, the rising seas will simply deposit more sand on them and the corals on which they sit will grow upward and keep producing sand. The result: the atolls will rise as the sea level rises. Where the scientists differed is how unpleasant the process would be for those living on the atolls. That’s much harder to predict. What is clear is that Kiribati’s Christmas Island, where I spent a week on this trip, will survive just fine: at 150 square miles, it’s the biggest atoll in the world, and most people live in a part that’s seven meters high.
As for the land that Tong bought for his people in Fiji, I went there and I discovered that it was wholly unsuited for settlement or growing food and that he paid four times the going rate for it.
So far I have published three stories: In Science magazine (pdf below), in IPS, and in the Fiji magazine Respublika (Fijian spelling for the word republic).
PDFs of the scientific articles quoted are not easy to get online, and I’m happy to send them to anyone who asks.