Kiribati looks for climate help from Australia

CANBERRA, June 20 (Reuters) - With climate change threatening his tiny Pacific nation, Kiribati President Anote Tong on Friday asked Australia for help in the battle against rising seas that threaten to erase his atoll home.

Kiribati is expected to vanish completely if oceans keep rising. The chain of 33 islands straddling the equator and home to 91,000 people was swamped three years ago by high spring tides that washed away farmland and flooded homes.

Tong met Australia's Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, as well as leading climate scientists from the Australian National University to discuss how long his country might have.

"Unless we act now, climate change will be catastrophic for Australia, Kiribati and the world," Wong said ahead of the closed-door meeting.

Kiribati was the scene of World War Two's Battle of Tarawa, when U.S. marines stormed Japanese fortifications in a bloody 1943 amphibious assault.

The chain's highest point is just 2 metres (less than seven feet) above sea level. Bikeman islet, near Betio, the former capital, disappeared under rising seas in the early 1990s, although some blame road construction and shifting currents rather than global warming.

Tong said the fishing-reliant country, with a $71 million economy, could be totally submerged within a century, under the worst current predictions.

The government has already asked larger nations, including New Zealand and Australia, to open their doors to its citizens who might become, along with people living in the Maldives and other Pacific islands, the world's first climate refugees.

Wong said climate change would bring higher seas and more extreme weather without urgent and coordinated world action.

"It will put the whole global economy at risk, with shortages of basic necessities like food, water, shelter and energy causing global conflict," she said. (Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by David Fogarty)