On the evening of June 5, two U.S. secret service agents patrolled the main lobby of American Museum of Natural History in New York. They were guarding Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, a nation of 32 atolls that stands in the middle of the Pacific some 3,000 miles from New Zealand. A short man with a salt and pepper hair and gray mustache, President Tong was busy exchanging handshakes with the guests—two Taiwanese diplomats, representatives of various non-profit groups and couple of scientists who’ve studied the underwater life around his islands. It was an annual gala of Conservation International (CI), an environment protection group, and President Tong spoke passionately about how Kiribati was drowning due to rising sea levels and its people had no higher ground to move to. “The ocean is at the front, back, sideways, everywhere,” Tong said. “We are trapped.”
Tong, a board member of CI, is an ardent speaker on climate change. His efforts to sensitize the world about rising sea levels are driven by where his country stands today—on the equatorial line, barely six and a half feet above sea level. In frequent intervals, the violent tides run over Kiribati’s farmland. Apart from vanishing landmass, President Tong has to deal with drinking water shortages, bad crops, and crumbling infrastructure.
Wherever he goes—which includes a conference on oceans hosted by the State Department this week—President Tong speaks like a lone witness of some unknown disaster, stressing what scientists have predicted: that by the end of this century Kiribati will disappear from the face of the earth.
After becoming president in 2003, Tong reached out to dozens of world leaders and asked them to build a strong discourse on climate change in the UN. At the 2004 UN General Assembly, when global terrorism was on top of the agenda, Tong introduced a new phrase, “climate terrorism.” Today he laughs at making such a move. “I did that out of desperation,” he says. “No one was listening to me so I thought, ‘let me cook up something catchy.’” Sometimes the fear of drowning has led him to consider ideas as strange as creating a $2 billion “floating island,” a spaceship-like structure with a capacity to hold 30,000 people. Since that idea didn’t materialize, he bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji where he says his people will migrate in case of the feared climatic disaster.
Since January, a committee that includes the former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser as well as former archbishops from New Zealand and Papua New Guinea has been campaigning for President Tong to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
More recently, Tong received attention for closing a significant portion of ocean—an area the size of California some 1,000 kilometers away from Kiribati—to commercial fishing. The ban, which will be implemented starting January 1, 2015, has big ramifications for the countries that have fishing licenses issued by Kiribati—the US, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as well as the global fishing market, since the Phoenix Island Protected Area, which will be closed, lies within the region that is home to the largest remaining stocks of tuna where 60% of the world’s tuna catch occurs, according to CI. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asked Tong on stage at the gala: “how does little state like Kiribati get away telling Japan, Korea, no more fishing?”
To get the answers to that and more, Fortune sat down with President Tong for an in-depth interview in which he talked about his childhood, his fast changing homeland, and the rationale behind the fishing ban.
Fortune: Many news reports suggest that you’re considering relocating the entire population of Kiribati to Fiji. How do you feel about that?
President Tong: It is quite painful when you think that you are actually planning to depopulate the nation. We have told people that they can choose whether they want to relocate or not. They will do it out of choice. I advocate relocation but relocation with dignity. Our people wont be refugees, they will be people migrating with dignity. And the world has to make a commitment that the people of Kiribati must not disappear.
When did climate change start hurting Kiribati?
When I was in the secondary school there was a village I used to walk through and it began to disappear slowly. We tried to erect a protective sea wall but it didn’t work. The village is no longer there. What remains of the village is a church building sitting out in the middle of the sea.
How did you react to it?
When I was young, I was in the sea every day. We didn’t have a lot to eat, so we would go to sea, catch fish, cook it and eat it. We loved it. You learn to live with the sea. It is part of you, you take everything, you accept everything. If there is rough weather, you expect it. But I think it was in the later years, in mid-2000s, even before I became [the president], there were some expressions of concern about the rising sea level. The climate change had been flouted around the international scene.
What’s been the response of other world leaders?
If you check my speech from the 2004 United Nations General Assembly, you will sense that there was a lot of anger and frustration [on the part of the other leaders], a sense of futility that nobody was listening to me, that nobody cared.
Has anything changed since then?
Yes, things have changed radically. I met John Kerry last year in Bali and he spoke very strongly and powerfully about climate change. Things weren’t like that before. In 2009, I was in a closed dinner with President Obama here in New York. There were about 26 leaders. There was a frank exchange of what to do about climate change. All these people were talking about carbon emissions and its impact on their economies. I felt very frustrated. I couldn’t resist but speak about my stand. I was like—look you’re talking about your economies but it’s about our survival here.
Did President Obama say anything?
He didn’t react, but I think he understood. He later told us that it was very difficult to do anything because the U.S. hasn’t fully accepted the notion of the climate change and it’s going to take time to swing the position of the U.S.
Will closing a big portion of your waters to commercial fishing jeopardize your relationship with the countries you’ve issued fishing licenses to?
We have got another 3 million square kilometers of water that will be open to fishing. We are closing only 11 percent of 3.5 million square kilometers. And we are preserving that much as our asset for future. This would allow the fish stock to recover.
We had started thinking about it long time back but we needed to continue to work with our official partners and all those who have an interest in fishing. We could not just say that we’re closing because we had signed fishing access agreements and we had to be careful that we don’t breach those agreements.
Is this your first response to climate change?
It is part of trying to get the message across. Over the years I have been talking at the United Nations, [but] nobody seemed to listen to this. They were all preoccupied by international terrorism. I would like to send a very clear message to the international community that we do need to make a sacrifice. To indicate our commitment because for us it is not an easy story, what we are facing is not easy, so we went to do this to demonstrate that we are serious, that other countries can and must make similar sacrifices.
To what extent is your economy dependent on tuna fishing?
We get around $400-$500 million in revenue every year. And this is the landed value, out of which the state gets a 10 percent cut, so we make $40 million annually.
How will you fill your budget deficit?
We balance our budget with trust funds. We have our own national trust fund. We invest money offshore. We invest in Japan, Europe, everywhere. The HSBC bank manages our investments. When we need money, we look into these stocks and fill the trust. We do lose money once in a while. In 2008 stock market crash, we lost about $18 million in Icelandic banks.
What if illegal fishermen intrude into your banned territories and defeat the purpose of your ban?
We have a ship rider agreement with the U.S. whereby the U.S. Coast Guard provides surveillance within our waters. They are authorized to detain the illegal fishermen.
Why are you planning future development when your islands are going underwater?
This thought does come but we have got to go on. We don’t put everything away because what is projected will happen. In the back of our minds there is that denial—that we won’t drown—and we could never get rid of that. Hopefully, somehow, some divine hand will intervene and do something about it.