Grad student to lecture on global warming’s threats to Pacific nation

Nobody needs to tell Kateta Tagliavento about climate change.

After she came to the United States in 2000 from Kiribati, a small country in the Pacific Ocean, she didn’t return for about eight years.

When she finally went back for a visit, she could tell the land had changed because of rising ocean levels.

“I used to see the beach when I was little, but some of the land eroded,” said Tagliavento, who now lives in Seattle. “There’s water in the houses. It’s horrible and scary.”

The effects of climate change on Kiribati and its people will be the subject of a talk at noon in room 617 of the William Pitt Union on Monday by Michael Roman, a doctoral candidate studying anthropology at Pitt. During the lecture, which is hosted by the anthropology department, Roman will present his research on climate change, which he collected in Kiribati in 2010.

Roman first visited Kiribati in 2000 after being placed there by the Peace Corps. In 2004, Roman returned to the country in order to study the threat of HIV and AIDS there. The following year, he presented his findings to the Kiribati government.

Kiribati, a country of about 100,000 citizens, sits midway between Australia and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. Although the country’s land totals only about three times the area of the city of Pittsburgh, its islands span a distance roughly equal to the length of the United States.

Kiribati’s land sits primarily atop coral atolls, or ring-shaped coral reefs. These atolls serve as a natural filtration system that makes the water drinkable.

Roman said that many people are forced to migrate from Kiribati as rising sea levels not only make much of the land uninhabitable, but also make salt water undrinkable.

“You go to the water fountain and press a button [in the United States]. In Kiribati, we dig down into the ground for water,” Roman said.

Roman said that when tides are especially high, the reefs are unable to filter the seawater. As a result, the fresh water source is destroyed, vegetation decays and potable water is more scarce.

Aarrin Baaro, a citizen of Kiribati who migrated to the United States last month, witnessed the environmental devastation of the island firsthand. Baaro now lives in New York and works as an assistant to her mother, Makurita Baaro, Kiribati’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

“It happens right before your eyes,” Aarrin Baaro said of the tides. “You don’t need to wait for it, you just experience it.”

Baaro said that one of the worst tides she experienced devastated both the land by flooding homes and the drinking sources by flooding the filtration system.

She said she hopes to convey the reality of climate change to more people.

“It was just horrible. We had water flowing in from both sides and trees falling down. The [roads] were destroyed. The people living on the beaches were really affected,” she said.

As a result of flooding coastlines, inland villages that were not as severely affected are becoming densely populated.

Migrating to villages is often the only option for citizens of Kiribati, due to immmigration restrictions in other countries.

New Zealand, the primary destination for those who leave Kiribati, only accepts 75 immigrants per year as part of its Pacific Access Category quota system.

Roman said that this system functions as a lottery, with applicants being randomly selected each year.

“The stipulation [to enter the lottery] is that you have to have a job offer to go,” Roman said.

Roman began preliminary field work on climate change in Kiribati in 2008. In 2010, he traveled to New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar in order to conduct field research on Kiribati migrants.

Those who immigrate to New Zealand through this system often work in low-paying jobs.

“They left their country to become second-class citizens,” Roman said.

The second most common destination for Kiribati citizens displaced by rising sea levels is the United States. These immigrants often marry American Peace Corps volunteers or military personnel.

Aarrin Baaro said that education is becoming far more important for youth in Kiribati because they can migrate to further their education as adults, instead of leaving as refugees.

Baaro said that part of her work with the U.N. is to help those displaced.

“One of our major goals is to help people move with dignity,” she said.

Roman said that there are pronounced differences between migrant life in New Zealand and in the United States. While immigrants to the United States often integrate themselves into American life as a result of marrying into the culture, immigrants to New Zealand mostly travel with family and form Kiribati communities there.

Roman said he does not think migration will interfere with the continuation of the Kiribati language and its culture.

Roman said that even in the United States, where Kiribati migrants are dispersed across the country, the culture is retained through an annual independence celebration on July 12.

Apart from celebrating its independence day, Roman said that the Kiribati community in the United States remains connected online through social media.

“We all remain connected in a virtual society, even if our land is lost,” Roman said, referring to himself as well as those who come from Kiribati because of the strong ties he formed with those from the country.

Roman met Tagliavento, one of his closest friends, through social media.

Tagliavento arrived in the United States to further her education and remained after marrying her husband, an American, soon after.

Tagliavento said that she recently spoke to her father, who remains in Kiribati, about the issue of global warming. Her father denied that he could see any changes in the land as a result of climate change.

Tagliavento said her father and many others who still live in Kiribati do not want to admit that their home is becoming uninhabitable.

“They think that it doesn’t exist. That’s their land and they’ll stay there until they die,” she said.