The president of this island nation just gave an unusual thank you for a sobering reason.

Islands don't have to be underwater to become uninhabitable.

The only country with parts in all four hemispheres, Kiribati, sits in the middle of the Pacific, straddling the Earth's equator.

It seems nice — the beaches are white-sand-and-palm-trees scenes right out of a travel guide. Just over 100,000 people live on its 33 atolls and islands.


South Tarawa, Kiribati's capital and most populous area. Image from Government of Kiribati/Wikimedia Commons.

But its president just thanked Fiji for helping them be able to leave this paradise.

“It's so heartening to hear that Fiji has undertaken to accommodate our people of Kiribati in the event that climate change renders our homes uninhabitable," said Kiribati President Anote Tong during a speech at the COP21 climate talks in Paris, as reported by Adam Vaughn from The Guardian.

Fiji is nearly 2,000 miles away from Kiribati. Traveling that far is like moving from Los Angeles to Chicago.

So why would 100,000 people need to abandon their homes and travel across the ocean to an entirely new country?

Because for them, the climate talks have come way too late.

Kiribati, though beautiful, is pretty poor, and local diets are often supplemented by crops grown in the atolls' thin, sandy soils. Of course, you can't grow plants in seawater, so much of the water for drinking and irrigation has to come out of a thin underground reservoir of rainwater.

But Kiribati's average elevation is less than 6.5 feet above sea level, so it doesn't take much for a large wave or storm surge to flood one of its islands.

Image from Erin Magee/DFAT/Flickr.

And when the sea rises over the land, that layer of freshwater can become polluted with salt. People can't drink it. Plants can't grow in it.

These palm trees, starved of fresh water, have turned into a forest of ghosts. Image by Government of Kiribati/Wikimedia Commons.

People can't thrive in a place with no food and clean water.

Malnutrition is becoming a serious problem in Kiribati. And it hits kids especially hard. A UNICEF report stated that 15% of children under 5 on Kiribati are underweight. This can stunt growth and make it harder for them to fight off illnesses.

This is just one effect of climate change. I'm not even getting into the other problems flooding and sea level rise can cause, like the destruction of houses or drowning risks.

Islands don't have to be underwater to become uninhabitable.

This is one of the things about sea level rise: A little bit doesn't look that serious. After all, the islands are still above sea level, aren't they? But islands don't have to be underwater to become uninhabitable.

Hence the evacuation plans.

President Tong has been outspoken about this existential threat for years. He's been building seawalls, protecting marine environments, and giving speech after speech. Even so, he's accepted the fact that Kiribati may soon be gone.

“We have to relocate people because the landmass is going to decline. That's common sense. Simple common sense. ... I can say that I refuse to move, but that's being stupid isn't it? Because it will not be me that will be affected. It will be my grandchildren," a March 2015 report from The Guardian quoted Tong as saying.

President Anote Tong meets with U.S. Navy Capt. Wallace Lovely in 2013. Image by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet/Flickr.

In 2012, he said he was in talks with Fiji to buy land for resettlement. This latest speech in Paris seems to confirm some sort of deal has come through. He also has a program to help the people of Kiribati leave and get job training in other countries such as New Zealand.

Climate change is going to end up forcing a lot of people out of their homes.

This wouldn't be the first time islanders have had to move because of the sea, but it would be the first time an entire nation was evacuated.

Some of the people of Kiribati are worried about whether their national culture will survive or be absorbed by Fiji's.

"Let us not pay lip service to an urgent and pressing issue."

Of course, Fiji may have its own climate change problems to deal with. Other island nations such as the Marshall Islands and the Maldives may also be under threat.

"For those of us whose very survival is at stake," President Tong said Monday, “our plea is very simple: Let us give substance to the pledges that have been made. ... Let us not pay lip service to an urgent and pressing issue."

That's why Paris is so important: These aren't hypotheticals anymore.

President Tong has had to make some incredibly tough decisions, and his message deserves to be heard by more people. Listen to his urgent address here:

If you're looking for something more concrete to do, sign this petition from the NRDC to demand climate action from our world leaders and make sure voices like President Tong's are heard.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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