A Tale of Two Londons

By Rachel Venn

14,000 km away from the Houses of Parliament, the Londoners of Kiribati pass their daily commute on the sandy atolls of the Pacific Ocean. A far cry from its metropolitan namesake, Christmas Island’s London is a tropical village basking in the sun and the sea, where traditional fishing lifestyles meet an endless expanse of water glittering in every direction.

Subject to terrifyingly precarious geography, this isolated community struggles under a fragile existence. In this land, poverty meets paradise: nearly 60% of the population are formally unemployed[1], and the GDP per capita, at $1,655, is lower than that of Yemen[2]. The coral reef islands that make up oceanic communities such as this one lie on average only 2m above sea level, and the effects of storms and high tides are felt keenly by every coastal inhabitant.  As the water creeps further in, and the trees erode away, the threat of annihilation from climate change grows ever stronger. The sand that holds down the country itself is particularly vulnerable to tidal surges: experts fear that rising sea levels may engulf this island nation of 100,000 people entirely by the end of the century.

Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati, has gone to great lengths to share his homeland’s predicament with the world, in the build-up to global climate talks – including the annual gatherings of the COP United Nations Climate Change Conference, the next of which will be hosted in Glasgow this coming November.

“I think what many people do not understand, is they think climate change is something that is happening in the future,” Tong told the Mission Blue II TED conference in 2015[3]. “Well, we're at the very bottom end of the spectrum. It's already with us. We have communities who already have been dislocated.”

When houses routinely wash away and the groundwater becomes contaminated, communities face the inevitable prospect of forced migration. What Tong feared for is the nothing less than the fate of his country; when it comes to the impacts of climate change, Kiribati is one of the most vulnerable places on the Earth.

Meanwhile, in another London, the spectre of a submerged city seems as distant a threat as stories of the sunken Atlantis. Life goes on in Westminster, but the fates of our two cities are far from disentangled: when Britain is hosting the world’s premier climate conference, the decisions that are made in government here have implications that reach far beyond the smoggy circle of the M25. One palpable matter is the question of emissions, and the weight of responsibility held by an industrialised country the face of an indiscriminate climate.

“Climate change is not an issue that really respects any sovereignty,” said Tong, in an interview with TIME magazine. “If it’s a national issue, keep your emissions within your borders, which you cannot do.”[4]

London has not kept emissions within its borders. In fact, data from 2004 shows that, at 15.5 tonnes per capita[5], the average City-of-Londoner in the UK produced 16 times more carbon dioxide a year than the average Londoner in Kiribati – and the numbers are likely to be even higher today. For one matter, the glass superstructures that have grown to dominate the city today rely on air-conditioning systems that result in carbon emissions 60% higher than those in better ventilated offices[6]. Since 2004, the technological, industrial, and populational statistics of the British London have also climbed relentlessly forward, leaving behind a new carbon footprint with each step in the way.

There are no skyscrapers in the London of Kiribati. There are very few cars, and the majority of fully built structures are limited to either churches or schools. While one London has sowed the seeds of a climate crisis, another London suffers the consequences.

When the sea encroaches forward in Kiribati, licking at the shores and creeping up to communities, the residents respond by building sea walls. They are shallow structures, simply sparse branches tied together, and supported from behind by sand bags gathered from the very beaches before them. The sea walls may hold out for a few days, if the high tide is brief; with a little elbow grease and maintenance, sometimes they are enough to protect a building. But more often than not, these efforts are futile.

"Look at this! How many more years will we build these things. How much more money will we spend and waste that we will build these seawalls?" said resident Claire Anterea in an interview to BBC News[7]. Perhaps they could look to Thames Flood Barrier for inspiration, stopping similar tides in our distant, greyer London. Unfortunately, at around £1.6 billion in today’s money, the total construction cost of our water wall was equal to around 3 times the total of Kiribati’s entire GDP.

When Britain hosts the COP26 conference this coming November, it will be good to keep in mind the people of London, Kiribati, in their plight against forces far beyond their control. Whether it is too late for the islanders to have any hope of retaining their home, it is difficult to say. But whatever the outcome, the stories from another London should serve as a reminder: to their namesakes here on the other side of the world, witness in Kiribati the importance and urgency of the decisions it is our responsibility to make.


[1] https://borgenproject.org/top-10-facts-about-living-conditions-in-kiribati/

[2] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD

[3] https://www.ted.com/talks/anote_tong_my_country_will_be_underwater_soon_unless_we_work_together/transcript

[4] https://time.com/4058851/kiribati-cliamte-change/

[5] https://www.carbonbrief.org/city-of-london-tops-uk-carbon-footprint-list

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/30/weatherwatch-glass-skyscrapers-are-worst-energy-offenders

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-35024046