Atoll countries are already experiencing the devastating impact of higher tides and extreme weather.
But President Tong has told the United Nations Small Island Developing States Conference in Samoa, that it is not too late to act.
He set up a Coalition of Atoll Nations on Climate Change in July, saying its members are the early warning system for the 70 per cent of humanity living along the world's coastlines.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Anote Tong, Kiribati President
TONG: The message that I think we have been delivering individually and this is, that for the most vulnerable countries, in particular the low-lying atoll nations, the need to address climate change urgent. Climate change for them is not something that is going to happen in the future. It is happening and this is what is usually not understood in most of the debate and the discussions on climate change.
GARRETT: What action do you want to cut greenhouse gas emissions and how important is the UN Secretary General's summit later this month?
TONG: Oh, any action on climate change is absolutely vital. What the UN Secretary-General has done is actually put climate change on the top of the agenda. He has done a tremendous job in this respect but I think what many people fail to understand, and what I know the Secretary-General has been doing because he has been to Kiribati, so he knows what it is that I have been talking about, which he could not understand until he visited and saw for himself, and all of the people that have done so have come away with a different perception of what climate change challenges we face. They understand that there is a need to do it now so what we are asking is 'Ok let's cut down greenhouse gases' that is important for the survival of the planet but for the survival of those low-lying atoll countries, like ourselves, it has got to be more than that. We talk about adaptation, how do we survive the rising sea levels? What happens to us? These are the questions that have to be addressed.
GARRETT: There had been a move to include climate change as a reason for refugee status under the UN refugee convention, a move to put that into the outcome documents for this Small Island Developing States Conference. Are you disappointed that that did not succeed?
TONG: No, I have never encouraged the status of our people being refugees, after all we have more than adequate time to prepare for it and I think the international community has more than enough time to address it well before it actually happens. And that is the difference between refugees and what we are now beginning to call climate refugees, because really there should not be climate refugees because we, the international community and everybody has more than enough time to address this issues. There should be no refugees.
GARRETT: So what action would you like to see from the big polluters like the United States and China and from Australia?
TONG: Well we need a combination of action. For one thing we certainly don't want to see our islands totally disappear because that would be so ...I think it would be disastrous. For the whole global community I think it is our moral values, our conscience should never take that, or should not be able to accept that, so we shouldn't allow that. From our perspective we never want to see that happen but at the same time we have to acknowledge the reality that with the rising sea, the land area available for our populations will be considerably reduced and we cannot accommodate all of them, so some of them have to go somewhere. OK, not as refugees, that is what I am arguing but we have more than enough time now to train them, to up-skill them, so that they can be worthwhile citizens when we relocate them, and when we relocate them as a community, not as refuges.
GARRETT: What is your message to Tony Abbott and the Australian government on that, and in the lead up to the UN Secretary-General's Climate Change summit?
TONG: The Australian government has taken different approaches to perhaps the same problem but I think what is important is that we must be genuine. There must be a genuine attempt to address the issue because we cannot ignore it and we should not ignore it. I think it would be disastrous if any country or any leader were to ignore the reality of what is happening. We can understand there might be different approaches. There can never be full agreement on that but I know that the strength at the moment, internationally and globally, that countries now including the United States and perhaps China, shortly, there is a move towards doing a great deal more to reduce carbon emissions. I believe Australia should come in. Maybe they need to assess whether they are along with the world trend? Are they different? And the question needs to be asked, why should it be different?
GARRETT: There are leaders and ministers and senior agency officials from around the world attending the Small Island Developing States summit. What impact do you hope to have with them specifically while you are there in Samoa?
TONG: It is exciting coming to Samoa, I think that in itself is an event but the real issue is, what can we come away from Samoa with? And I think what is important is the thing that is important is partnerships. For example what we have done here is consolidated our partnership in terms of the Coalition of Atoll Nations in response to climate change. What we need now is not a partnership of us people, the victims, us people with the same problem, what we need is a partnership with those who can do something about it, those who are prepared and willing to do something about it.