Kiribati: 118,000 People on the Frontline of Climate Change and Mike Roman’s Mission to Help

Mike Roman in Kiribati

Mike Roman (center) in Kiribati

Mike is an academic advisor at the University of Cincinnati by day, and a Pacific Climate Change Warrior by night. He has been working tirelessly for nearly 19 years to tell the world about the island nation of Kiribati (pronounced “KEE-REE- BAS”) and the danger that it’s people face as a result of climate change.

Initially teaching in Kiribati primary schools through the Peace Core from 2000 to 2002, Mike fell in love with the people and culture of Kiribati. He came back in 2004 to work with the UNAIDS program and Kiribati’s Ministry of Health. While working towards his PhD in 2007, Mike was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to leave the island. Wanting to continue his work for Kiribati, Mike rerouted his studies to climate change impacts on human health and migration. Although skeptical about climate change at first, Mike had seen enough dramatic changes on the island firsthand over time to realize it was real and happening…but not until studying it did he realize what a massive problem it could potentially become for Kiribati, and the world – it became his #1 priority.

Kiribati is a group of islands just south of Hawaii and is home to 118,000 people.

Map of Kiribati

The people have faced a host of climate-related problems, such as water supply contamination, land loss, crop failures, extreme drought, increased vector-borne disease outbreaks, and unprecedented cyclonic activity over the past two decades. On average, Kiribati is just 6.5 feet (2 meters) above sea level. Put bluntly, there is a good chance it, along with several other island nations with ~750,000 people, will become uninhabitable in the coming decades. Mike’s mantra is “1.5 to stay alive”. He picked it up from others working in the field to tell the world about endangered nations and human populations. Currently, we are around 1.1ºC, and a 1.5ºC increase may already be locked in. As former President Anote Tong said, “While we may be the first, surely…we will not be the last.”

Given a billboard, Mike would not use words, but rather show this picture of one place in Kiribati over time:

Effects of climate change in Kiribati over time

Effects of climate change in Kiribati over time

It’s worth noting that the Pacific island nations have contributed just .00012% of global GHG emissions. Kiribati has bought some land in Fiji for peace of mind. If the worst comes to pass, they will likely be forced to relocate although many might stay. In I-Kiribati culture, the land is directly tied to their identity. Leaving home for somewhere with a different language, unheard of temperatures, ways of life, and where they’re considered immigrants, is far from ideal.

After many years of work on the ground and producing academic publications which seemingly did nothing, Mike started Humans of Kiribati with his family and friends on the islands to tell the world the story of the people of Kiribati. It’s mission: to record, present, and preserve the faces, voices, and cultures of Kiribati. Through online platforms, we aim to raise the global awareness of Kiribati and her people living on the front lines of climate change.” (discussions are about the people more than climate change) Mike says, “The only thing that can save us is humanity. Not technology, not money… we need compassion – people to connect with people. Change of hearts, change of minds. That’s what Humans of Kiribati is trying to do.” Right now they have 145,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram. They have worked with media outlets from around the world (ABC, BBC, NBC, CBS, and PBS are just a few) and their efforts have even been highlighted at UN international forums.

At home and around the world, Humans of Kiribati is making waves. Give them a like and share their story! I found their photographs highlighted at the most recent COP Forum (UN climate change conference) to be particularly beautiful and powerful.

Keep in mind:

“It is far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” – William L. Watkinson


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