The world should stop developing new coal mines to step up the fight against climate change, according to Anote Tong, president of the Pacific island-nation of Kiribati that’s slowly being swamped by rising seawater.
With envoys working to devise a new deal to fight global warming at a December meeting in Paris, each new coal mine “undermines the spirit and intent of any agreement we may reach,” Tong wrote to world leaders in a letter distributed Thursday by the environmental group Greenpeace.
“Action now is imperative for we are now facing major challenges never faced before not only from the rise in sea levels but also from the real possibility of changes from the current weather patterns,” Tong said. “To avoid catastrophic climate change, we must leave the vast bulk of carbon reserves in the ground.”
Investors and governments are backing away from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. United Nations scientists have warned that the bulk of fossil-fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avoid the worst effects of higher temperatures, which climate envoys aim to cap at a rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since industrialization.
Low-lying Kiribati is already feeling the effects of the 0.8 of a degree of warming and 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) of sea-level rise since the end of the 19th century, including about 5 centimeters the past 15 years. The atoll nation is mainly 2 meters or less above central Pacific Ocean waters.
“We are already seeing parts of most islands submerging under water,” Tong said Thursday in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio’s “The World Today” program. “If the rest of the islands disappear, we will try to maintain at least a few islands so that Kiribati will not disappear from the face of the Earth.”
Kiribati has been building sea walls and buying land in Fiji to help grow food as saltwater encroaches on agricultural fields.
“The forces of nature have intensified more than ever before and are occurring with greater frequency. Regrettably for most of us, the consequences have been devastating,” Tong wrote. “As leaders, we have a moral obligation to ensure that the future of our children, our grandchildren and their children is safe and secure.”
A panel of climate scientists gathered by the UN estimates that a so-called carbon budget, a theoretical amount of carbon that can be burned without breaching the 2-degree threshold, will be used up by 2033 if fossil-fuel use continues at current rates. That’s added impetus to the move against coal.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s new clean power rules announced last week are designed to curb the use of coal in generating electricity. At the same time, companies and organizations including Axa SA, France’s biggest insurer, Norway’s $900 billion sovereign wealth fund, the Church of England and Stanford University have begun to divest from companies that mine or burn the fuel.