Challenges facing Kiribati indicate what climate change could mean at its worst
Floating islands, builtup land, and refuge in Fiji are among the evacuation options Kiribati's government has considered to combat rising seas.
Some of Kiribati's islands may disappear under the sea this century, President Anote Tong told New Zealand dignitaries, scientists and island representatives at the first Pacific Climate Change conference in Wellington this week.
Some scientists believe Kiribati's chain of 33 atolls and islands, which stand just metres above sea level, could be uninhabitable as early as 2030.
"But even before that happens we are already experiencing extreme high tides and more severe storms on unprecedented magnitude," Tong said.
The fate of small island states could be seen as a microcosm for what climate change might mean for the rest of us at its most severe, Tong said.
For several years, he has talked about the potential of relocating the 100,000 population to a floating island that a Japanese engineering conglomerate hopes to build in the coming decades, with technology that hasn't been invented yet.
Tong said Fiji has offered to accommodate climate refugees from Kiribati.
Island states battled hard for the aspirational 1.5 degree Celsius limit on emissions rises at the global climate change conference COP21.
While the official agreement is to limit emissions rises to 2C above pre-industrial levels, Pacific nations needed to follow through on the 1.5C goal to slow rising seas, Victoria University of Wellington professor of physical geography James Renwick said.
"Their maximum elevation may well be two to three metres above sea level so the prospect is pretty daunting when you're talking about half a metre of sea level rise."
Seas are expected to rise another 30 centimetres by the middle of the century and by a metre by 2100, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
A banner at the Wellington conference, which read "We are not drowning, we are fighting" caught the attention of Ralph Sims, a professor of sustainable energy at Massey University.
"It struck me, humans historically have been responsible for the survival of birds and animals but now they are responsible for the survival of people."
Cost estimates of damages and reconstruction already run into the millions of dollars and are expected to escalate, increasing pressure on already limited national resources, Tong said.
Sims said financing efforts to mitigate climate change were a key issue. International pledges worth US$10.3 billion (NZ$15.5 billion) have been made to a Green Climate Fund.
New Zealand has contributed $3m to the fund, but Prime Minister John Key has also promised NZ$50m a year for four years for "climate related actions" in the South Pacific.