Olympic weightlifter David Katoatau may have finished last in his category on Monday, but the goofy Kiribati athlete won the cheers, the hearts – and the attention – of everyone who watched him dance off the stage to share a serious message: Climate change is destroying his home.
“Most people don’t know where Kiribati is,” Katoatau, 32, told Reuters. “I want people to know more about us, so I use weightlifting and my dancing to show the world. I wrote an open letter to the world last year to tell people about all the homes lost to rising sea levels. I don’t know how many years it will be before it sinks.”
Some are saying it could be as few as 30 years.
Located in the central Pacific about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, Kiribati is a nation made up of 33 islands and atolls (coral islands), 21 of which are inhabited by a population of more than 100,000. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released multiple reports since 2001 listing Kiribati among the most vulnerable to climate change, alongside other “small island developing states,” including the Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives.
“The schools I have visited in Kiribati and the thousands of children I have met aspire to be something great. How do I lie to them and say their dreams are possible when our nation is disappearing?” Katoatau pleads in his open letter, distributed last year at the Commonwealth Games Federation meeting by his coach, Paul Coffa.
“I beg the countries of the world to see what is happening to Kiribati. The simple truth is that we do not have the resources to save ourselves. We will be the first to go.”
As is usually the case with climate change, the threat to islands like Kiribati is not as straight-forward as simply disappearing into the ocean. Since atolls are living coral, scientists believe they may “change shape and adapt to rising sea levels,” the Atlantic reported. However, changing conditions may make the islands “uninhabitable or prohibitively expensive to inhabit.”
Last year, the government of Kiribati laid out the grisly details in a report submitted to the U.N. Food supplies (fish and farming) would be disrupted by stronger waves and exacerbated natural disasters like droughts and cyclones; infrastructure would be destroyed by storms and erosion; rising temperatures and changing rainfall would increase incidences of diseases such as dengue fever.
“The results of sea level rise and increasing storm surge threaten the very existence and livelihoods of large segments of the population,” the report stated. Not to mention, the financial toll of these crises would devastate the nation already considered one of the poorest in the world.
While the government of Kiribati is focusing on strategies for adaptation even more so than mitigation, the country’s leaders have also acknowledged the reality of an impending “option of last resort” – relocation. To that end, the Kiribati government hopes to improve opportunities for its citizens, making them more qualified and “attractive as migrants.”
At least one I-Kiribati knows how to attract attention, and Monday wasn’t Katoatau’s first time. At the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years ago, Katoatau danced (and lifted) his way to Kiribati’s first gold medal in any global sporting competition. And even before the lifting competitions began in Rio, Twitter already fell in love with the island’s exuberant flag waver in the Parade of Nations.
In an a world of viral videos and trending hashtags, factual reports often get stuck in a bubble of policy, and broadcasted segments – like the climate change-themed opening ceremony – elicit accusations of propaganda. Instead, Katoatau’s personal and endearing approach seems to be working.
For the sake of Kiribati and everyone facing the threat of climate change, let’s hope he keeps dancing.