BAR HARBOR — There once were two neighbors, said Anote Tong, former president of the Republic of Kiribati, to the group gathered at the College of the Atlantic’s commencement ceremony Saturday.
One of them had a tree in his driveway that made turning around in his car difficult. So he cut the tree. It fell on his neighbor’s house.
“He went to the neighbor and said, ‘Oh my goodness, your house, it’s destroyed! What are you going to do about it?’”
That’s about what it’s like representing Kiribati at United Nations climate negotiations, he said. The South Pacific island nation, the small islands of which rise an average of 6 feet above sea level, is one of the most vulnerable in the world to rising sea levels.
Here in the United States, Tong said, the neighbor with the destroyed house may take the other to court to hold him to account for the damage his actions caused.
But “we don’t have that remedy, do we?” he said.
“When you talk about the inconvenient truth, inconvenient for who?” Tong said in an interview Friday. “That is the developed nations. It’s always that perspective. So my task was to change that. When I spoke at the U.N., I said, ‘I’m hearing people being so worried about the polar bears. But come on. We’re also in deep trouble. Why doesn’t anybody talk about our problem?’
“That is the issue,” he said. “It’s always been about science, the environment and the animals, but not about the people. The human dimension has got to be truly highlighted. The point being that we may be on the front lines of this. Now our survival is at stake. But if nothing is done, the rest will follow.
“So it’s a human issue. But it’s also a deeply moral issue. Because it’s about understanding that what you do affects those that are being affected. So you have a role to play.”
At COA, players in ongoing meetings for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are household names. A delegation from the college, led by faculty member Doreen Stabinsky, attends the group’s summits most years.
Student Aura Silva Martinez, who introduced Tong at the graduation, has been to UNFCCC meetings three times. The first time she went, to Paris in 2015, the COA delegation was 15 people.
“Professor Doreen Stabinsky does a great job of preparing us,” Martinez said Friday. “There was definitely a progression through the three years, the last one that I went to last November in Bonne, I really did feel like I had some knowledge to follow the negotiations.”
Her senior project is about negotiations such as those. She analyzed how the debate at the U.N. and elsewhere tends to link economic development and climate solutions, sometimes in unhelpful ways.
“Historically, everything has been shaped under the West’s shadow, so in trying to solve climate change, we should also listen to other parts of the world and how they’re already dealing with climate change,” she said. “I was trying to identify the places where a discourse on development that puts developed countries as the progressive way and the way forward is damaging to more local or traditional ways of also tackling climate change.
“Not everything is about solar panels,” she said with a grin, “although we do need them.”