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As climate change threatens islands, Kiribati's president plans development

Climate Refugees
Climate Refugees: Nations under threat 08:06

The low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati is one of the parts of the world most threatened by climate change and rising sea levels. Scientists say the islands could be uninhabitable within decades, and in recent years, some leaders there have begun planning for a worst-case scenario that could involve relocating the population to other countries. 

However, in a video presentation to the international climate conference in Bonn, Germany, last week, the president of Kiribati appeared to be turning away from such a plan.

"Climate change is indeed a serious problem," President H.E Taneti Maamau said in the video."But we don't believe that Kiribati will sink like the Titanic ship. Our country, our beautiful lands, are created by the hands of God."   

Instead, Maamau says the government's 20-year plan is to build up Kiribati and develop "a resilient and updated capacity."

"We can't do it alone," he said. "We need the cooperation and the hands of our developing partners and those who are ready to assist and join us on this ambitious journey."

Later in the video, far from discussing abandoning the islands, a narrator instead proclaims the goal of promoting tourism by attracting foreign investors to develop "5-star eco-friendly resorts that would promote world-class diving, fishing and surfing experiences" on currently uninhabited islands. 

It says the nation's 20-year plan "has an ambitious aim to transform Kiribati into the Dubai or Singapore of the Pacific." 

The world's first climate change refugees 06:51

Kiribati (pronounced "kir-ah-bahss" by locals), is made up of a string of 33 small islands located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It is home to 100,000 people and has has an average elevation of just 6 feet above sea level. Extremely high tides, known as "King Tides," have inundated homes, contaminated drinking water and killed off crops. 

Government officials say they are working on a plan to raise the level of a large area of currently uninhabitable land to make it habitable.

CBS News correspondent Seth Doane traveled to Kiribati over the summer to report for "CBSN: On Assignment." During his visit, Doane learned of the challenges locals are facing as climate change threatens their way of life. Some have already lost their homes.

Several residents told Doane they would want to leave the country, but the U.N. does not recognize climate change as grounds for refugee status. 

Others said they hold the U.S. accountable for the impacts they are experiencing thousands of miles away. The U.S. accounts for over a quarter of the world's carbon emissions to date. 

Maamau's predecessor, former President Anote Tong, said he hopes his people find a way to leave before they are forced to evacuate. 

"I don't like our people to be categorized as refugees. ... Having lost a home, the last thing I would push to see them lose is their dignity," he said in Doane's report. 

Inside Climate News reports that in 2014, Tong purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji for Kiribati's permanent resettlement. He hoped to develop a model of planned retreat in the face of climate change.

Tong called on countries worldwide to take responsibility for saving his fragile nation. "We have got to understand that climate change is not a national issue it's a global issue, and we need global thinking. We need global leadership that is what is lacking at the moment," he said.

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