COPENHAGEN (AlertNet) - Rather than waiting to become climate "refugees", people from the Pacific island of Kiribati are training as nurses and other professions to achieve "merit-based relocation" to Western countries in need of workers.
In one of the most emotional sessions so far of the Copenhagen climate meeting, officials of the remote atoll nation said Wednesday they are doing everything possible to preserve their low-lying country, which faces inundation and loss of its fresh water to sea level rise.
They appealed to negotiators and world leaders at Copenhagen to reach an effective new global pact to limit carbon emissions, calling it their last hope of saving their homeland.
In Kiribati, climate change and sea level rise "are no longer a matter of speculation. They are a reality for our people," said President Anote Tong, in a videotaped address that showed footage of stands of salt-killed palm trees and waves crashing onto highways and lapping into homes.
But island officials also admitted they are making plans for an eventual "practical and rational" relocation of the atoll's 96,000 people to countries including Australia and New Zealand.
"We are proud people. We would like to relocate on merit and with dignity," said Tessie Lambourne, Kiribati's foreign secretary.
Under the plan, islanders are taking advantage of assistance programs in Australia and New Zealand to train young people as nurses and other in-demand professions. The programs allow successful graduates to remain and seek citizenship.
The hope, Lambourne said, is that the families of immigrants could eventually qualify for immigration as well.
She said she hoped similar training and migration programs would be established in other Western nations, including the United States, Canada and Japan.
"The idea is to have pockets of (Kiribati) communities around the world," she said.
Officials made clear, however, that abandoning their nation is a last resort. To stem damage from saltwater inundation and rising seas they are planting mangroves, developing salt-resistant plants, building seawalls and boosting rainwater harvesting.
"We want to make sure that our children and their children live in a country called Kiribati," Lambourne said.
But seawater intrusion into drinking wells and pollution of freshwater has already put a stop to the island's recent decline in infant mortality rates, leaving it with still the highest level of deaths in the Pacific, said Michael Foon, a climate change officer who was near tears while describing his department's inability to solve the island's problems.
Desalination plants are expensive and maintaining them requires skills Kiribati doesn't have, officials said. Advice to move away from the coast is similarly ineffective in a nation that is at many points 300 meters wide.
"If your whole country is coastal area, where to you move to?" Lambourne asked.
Foon said that the nation's initial efforts in trying to adapt to climate change held a few key messages for other at-risk countries.
Countries should avoid the temptation to divide limited funds among lots of needed projects and instead choose one or two that can produce the most concrete results, he said.
And he warned that even the most well-thought-out adaptation efforts of small island nations are doomed without global action to cut production of greenhouse gases.
"We know that whatever passion we put into these adaptation programs will not work without deep emissions cuts. That is what we really need," he said.