Lessons from a drowning nation


A hermit crab walks across sands exposed at low-tide on Bikeman Islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati May 25, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far even from some of its closest neighbors — Hawaii and Fiji — the small island nation of Kiribati is being swallowed by the rising sea. Anote Tong, who has served as president of the country since 2003, has spent the past decade rallying the international community to pay attention to climate change, at the same time as he is making plans to relocate his nation.

Tong is the latest interviewee in The Washington Post's "On Leadership" video series, in which notable figures share the challenges they have faced and the lessons they have learned about leading. In the video, Tong talks about the difficulty of getting other countries to care about the plight of his small nation. You can also read the extended version of our conversation below. It's been edited lightly for length and clarity.

The president of the small island nation of Kiribati talks with The Post's Lillian Cunningham about struggling to be heard on the international stage. (Gillian Brockell, Lillian Cunningham, Julio Negron and Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Q. What have been some of the challenges in communicating to the citizens of Kiribati about their future?

A. To start, I was criticized for saying that climate change would threaten our future and that we may in fact have to relocate to survive as a people. Some challenged: “Oh, you shouldn’t be saying this. If you continue to say this, our donor partners will no longer contribute, because how can they contribute to our development, if we in the future will not have a development?”

I said, “We must face the truth, and the outcome is something that we should feel we have some measure of control of.” We are human beings with the ability to think our way out of problems. I didn’t believe that, because the sea level was rising and our islands would be underwater, we did not deserve any further assistance. If anything, we deserve a lot more, because we have to deal with this.

But how does one plan the demise of one’s own country? I can assure you it’s not fun or exciting. It’s scary, but you’ve got to overcome that fear and you’ve got to think positively. As a leader, I have no right to lead if I cannot find a way out. So I had to create solutions that did not exist. I had to think about relocating our people and the best way to do it. There is no higher ground within our borders, so we’d have to move to higher ground elsewhere.

I was also faced with the challenge that some of our people don’t want to leave. Opinion continues to be divided. There are those who say, “It doesn’t matter. We will stay no matter the cost.” So though we cannot build up all the islands above the sea-level rise, we must build up some to ensure that the nation of Kiribati never disappears — and also to provide an option for those who choose not to go.

I think it’s our responsibility today to make the decisions that would ensure the future of the next generation, and the generation after. For those who choose to go, our responsibility as leaders is to prepare them. We have to provide them with the kind of education that would ensure that if and when they relocate, they would move as citizens who are skilled and would find jobs and who would move with dignity. Dignity is absolutely vital, because people who have lost everything else must not lose their dignity. So that is the strategy that we have adopted: a combination of options.

Q. I imagine this has made you reflect a lot on what identity means, and what you lose or take with you if you move.

A. We as a people are defined by our environment, by the place we live in. We are deeply spiritual. We associate with the land, the ocean, the skies. And there reside our ancestral spirits, with whom we believe we communicate in one form or another. That is part of our identity, our tradition, our culture. So with the rising seas and the disappearance of our islands, much of what we are will disappear.

We’ve had people come to the United States. They will become Americanized, there is no question about that. The question is: How much American do they become and much less Kiribati? The answer will differ from individual to individual, but we need a place to be able to identify with. This is why we insist that we must build up some of our islands, so that identity is never entirely lost.

Q. What insight about humanity have you gained from having to face the potential disappearance of your culture and your community?

A. I keep saying that climate change is the greatest moral challenge facing humanity. It will test our human values. Are we different? Is it about those who get to survive and those who don’t? Or is it about sharing what there is?

I have about ten grandchildren, so I am not talking hypothetically. We’ve got to understand that it’s not about economic growth, it’s not about politics, it’s about ensuring that those young people, who are now in their teens or younger, can have a future in the country of their own.

Q. What’s one of the leadership lessons that has stuck with you most in your time as president?

A. Leadership is something that you find and develop in the process of doing what you have to do. When I started speaking about climate change at the United Nations general assembly, it was not very exciting for me — it was very frustrating because nobody was listening. There was a major preoccupation in the international arena with terrorism, and here I was trying to communicate my story, a story of what climate change meant for the future of our people.

We had to acknowledge the reality that with the sea-level rise, our islands will be underwater. How do we adapt? Does Kiribati as a nation continue to exist or not?

The Pacific Island nation of Kiribati lies seven feet above sea level on average. But scientists say it's drowning. PostTV asked Kiribati president Anote Tong how he's planning for a future that might find his entire country submerged in the Pacific Ocean. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

I can assure you it’s never been an easy process for me to embark on this campaign. When I began, I had a lot of criticism politically and even domestically that I was raising something nobody wants to hear. Nobody wants to be told that your nation will be underwater, that the future of your people is under serious threat. It called for a lot of soul-searching on my part. Am I a scare-monger? Or am I seriously trying to address the issue?

At the end of it all, I was convinced that I was doing the right thing. One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is no matter how small, how apparently insignificant your country or your nation might be in terms of size, if you believe sufficiently in what you’re saying, and if you feel passionate enough, people will listen to you.

Q. What did you learn about how to make your voice heard?

A. At the beginning, I was very angry. I thought I knew who to blame for it. I was pointing fingers early in my campaign. Then I realized that people don’t listen to that sort of language. People don’t like to be blamed. So I moderated my tone, and realized I had to be a lot more constructive and come forward with solutions, so that’s what I did.

We are a small nation. We don’t have a lot of influence in international politics. Yet at the time, as I said, there was major preoccupation with terrorism. So I worked with my people to figure out how we could direct attention to what we were trying to say. We came up with a term, “eco-terrorism,” associating terrorism with what was happening with the environment — and, more importantly, highlighting the human dimension.

There were still sometimes confrontations between me and leaders who continued to say that addressing climate change came down to economics, and that they could not afford to be involved in order to remedy it. I said, “No, surely you cannot be serious.” Here we are talking about our survival — the survival of nations, people, their culture, their identity. How can they be talking about economic growth? It didn’t seem to me to be balanced. Without realizing it, I became very passionate. It’s something that had always been deep within me. It had always wanted to be said.

Q. Tell me more about the evolution of your leadership style. 

A. The first thing that one needs to learn is that, whatever your profession has been earlier in life, leadership is different. As a technocrat or bureaucrat or whatever, you have to be so focused on getting a particular thing done. In leadership, you have no choice but to take a wider perspective and be more holistic in the way you see things, because you are accountable. You are not accountable for just achieving something you were assigned to do, but you’re actually responsible for the lives of people. You’re no longer your own person. You have to influence international thinking and advocate from the perspective of the people you represent.

I think my passionate involvement with the climate change issue really brought out something very different in me that I did not know I had, which is this understanding that there is a great deal beyond you. It’s actually never about you. Leadership at the national level is different from leadership at the international level — and leadership as a human being, as a citizen of this planet, is even at a different level than that. We’ve got to think not as presidents of our nations, but as people who can make a difference to the future of humanity.

Q. What’s your best piece of advice?

A. There is a great deal that we as human beings can do and that we can share with each other. Yet we think about ourselves far too often. This is mine. That’s yours. Don’t cross my border. It’s time we begin to rethink all of that. We need to think of human beings as citizens of this planet, without any borders.

This is the challenge of climate change. We’ve got to think beyond ourselves. We’ve got to think beyond our politics and the next election. We’ve got to think beyond our country on its own. We’ve got to think about the wider world, because it is a globalized world and we are so interdependent that decisions taken in a boardroom in some part of the world will impact those of us in the remote part of Kiribati. Whatever we do has an effect, either positively or negatively, on somebody else. So it’s important that we make the right decisions and we do the right things.

Q. Is there someone in your life who taught you a lot about leadership?

A. At home, we have many old men who are so wise and so responsible in understanding their role as elders to the rest of the community. It is sobering to know that no matter how well educated you think it might be, it’s the wisdom not the education that is important.

More from the series:

Suaad Allami on helping women in Iraq

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz on customizing your leadership style

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Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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