Kiribati faces its future, and a rising ocean

Recently, a curious case appeared before New Zealand's High Court. The plaintiff, Ioane Teitiota, a resident of the island-nation of Kiribati, was seeking refugee status in New Zealand. His reasoning? Climate change and rising sea levels were making Kiribati uninhabitable. "There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," Teitiota argued.

I used to live in Kiribati, a remote nation of 33 atolls in the equatorial Pacific scattered over an area nearly two-thirds as large as the continental United States. When I lived there, in the late 1990s, the island elders were beginning to notice a strange new phenomenon. The spring tides, or king tides as they are sometimes called, were beginning to breach the typical high-water mark on the beach, inundating homes, flooding pig pens and streaming over the causeways that linked the islets of South Tarawa, where most of the nation's 100,000 inhabitants resided.

In response, many families built sea walls made of coral, hoping to forestall the damage inflicted by the rising ocean. Surely, it was thought, these super tides were an anomaly. For more than 1,000 years, these islanders had lived on their atolls, the slim crests of undersea volcanoes, not more than 200 yards wide and rarely rising more than a couple of feet above sea level, without feeling threatened by the ocean.

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