40 years of impact: from 1980s Chevening Scholar to president of Kiribati
Anote Tong is the former president of Kiribati and a famous ‘climate warrior’. After becoming a Chevening Scholar in 1987, Anote maps out the surprising path he took into politics and how he succeeded in focusing global attention on the human dimensions of climate change.
‘Our inability as a global community to agree on a unified stand on climate change and sea-level rise is most disappointing and we deplore the notion that economic growth must take precedence over environmental issues. Our very existence as a state is at stake if this thinking prevails.’ – President Anote Tong of the Republic of Kiribati at the 59th session of the United Nations General Assembly, 28 September 2004
This was the first time that a world leader had highlighted the human dimensions of climate change and its potential catastrophic impacts for countries on the frontline at a UN General Assembly. And it was raised by Anote Tong: Chevening Alumnus and president of Kiribati from 2003-2016.
‘When I spoke about it, nobody else spoke about it. So I felt like a bit of a fool when I returned home and wondered – is it really an issue? Why does nobody else seem to care? Of course by the next year other Pacific Island countries started to join me and by 2007 when the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report came out, it was quite clear that climate change was no longer a speculative issue: it was human-induced and countries like Kiribati were at risk of becoming unhabitable before the end of the century.’
Looking back at his career and time in office, Anote pinpoints his efforts to focus global attention on the human dimension of climate change as his proudest achievement.
‘For a long time, climate change was just discussed out of scientific curiosity, but not many people associated it with the threat to human lives, and what it means – not just for polar bears – but for people like us, who will also lose our homes because of climate change.’
While working to increase global attention on the risks of climate change for his people and the urgent need for action, Anote put the wheels in motion to increase Kiribati’s climate resilience. Among other actions taken, in 2014 he directed the purchase of land in Fiji as a contingency refuge for his people. His efforts led to him being dubbed a ‘climate warrior’, remembered for pioneering the notion of migration with dignity to avoid the people of Kiribati becoming climate refugees.
The influence that Anote exerted on the international stage was ‘without a doubt’ strengthened by his Chevening experience, he says.
‘My Chevening experience became a part of me. Whatever I did from there on would have been influenced by that part of me. It gave me that confidence that I needed to interact at the international level while giving me a more balanced perspective of the people that the world is actually made up of. Often it’s not the classroom where you learn the best lessons, but rather the people who you get to interact with.
I believe that Chevening also helped give me the standards, the values, and the principles that I applied later in life [during my political career].’
The fact that Anote embarked on his Chevening year in 1987, at a time when Kiribati had only recently become independent, was also significant for his political development.
‘Although today I would say that it’s always been my destiny to go into politics, at that time I was reluctant. I am a bit of technocrat really. But my country was in an interesting stage of its political development. We were now fully responsible for our own future and so there was a great deal of pressure on the political leadership.
I also felt that pressure myself. Coming back to Kiribati as one of the few educated people with a degree, I felt an enormous burden that, having had that education, it was incumbent upon me to deliver something for the people.’
Anote’s message for current Chevening Scholars and Alumni thinking about getting involved in politics remains rooted in this sense of responsibility that comes with being a Chevening Scholar and Alumnus:
‘The fact that you are a Chevening Scholar means you have already shown that you have the capacity to influence decision making in whatever field you might be in. So make maximum use of that. And of course understand that if you’ve been selected for such a scholarship, you have been given a gift, so you must use that talent for the purpose of serving not just yourself, but others too.
Politics also needs good people, not just educated people, but good people. And if you are a Chevening Scholar, then you are one of the good ones.’