Tuvalu: A Small, Sinking Island with Big Climate Ambitions
Note: this article was originally published in Italian in Vanity Fair Italia’s April 16, 2023 edition at: https://www.vanityfair.it/article/atollo-tuvalu
Tuvalu may be a small, sinking group of reef islands and atolls with just over 12,000 citizens, but the world’s fourth smallest country has big ambitions. This 26 sq km nation, midway between Australia and Hawaii, has repeatedly stood up to China to avoid becoming a “superpower pawn” amid US-China tensions over Taiwan. But the country might not have the benefit of choosing its allies anymore as rising sea levels are threatening its survival. Tuvaluans have shown entrepreneurship and creativity in dealing with climate change. The question is will these efforts be enough?
Back in 1989, the UN declared Tuvalu as one of the island nations most likely to disappear by the end of the century due to climate change. Fast forward to 2023 and speculation has grown about how Tuvalu’s days might be numbered, plagued by coastal erosion, severe droughts, water shortages and contaminated groundwater. The island is “highly vulnerable” to climate hazards including tropical cyclones and storm tides. In fact Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano noted in a 2022 Time oped that his country may be “uninhabitable” in the next two or three decades — even if world leaders meet the 1.5C mitigation target (which is highly unlikely based on COP27 discussions). Yet Tuvalu has done “nothing” to cause climate change, with the Pacific Islands contributing less than 0.03% of the world’s total carbon emissions.
About a fifth of the population since 2014 have made the difficult decision to leave Tuvalu to become some of the world’s first climate refugees. Some citizens have legally immigrated to New Zealand as residents thanks to bilateral deals with the country. Yet international law — specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention — still does not officially recognize climate refugees. By 2050, the world may in fact have 1.2 billion climate refugees globally, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. This raises questions about the rights of climate-displaced people and their future.
Tuvaluans — The Warriors
Yet Tuvaluans have shown they are not going down without a fight. Tied to their country, Tuvaluans are sending a strong message to the rest of the world by calling for help and justice. Silafaga Lalua, assistant to Prime Minister Natano, is very clear on the matter: “We don’t want to call ourselves climate refugees. We want the country responsible for climate change to help us adapt to the new impacts that the climate has on our country.” She explains, ”The whole country right now could move to other countries [for better opportunities], but we are not leaving because of climate change. We refuse to be climate refugees.” She adds, “this is where we grew up. This is where our customs and traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. So yes, we are happy where we are.”
Younger people are also forging ahead to fight for their country. In 2020, Saving Tuvalu was founded by Kato Ewekia, a youth climate activist who made history as the first Tuvaluan delegate to participate at COP26. This youth-led NGO has been featured in Forbes, Esquire and Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, amplifying the stories of the people of Tuvalu, as well as developing humanitarian aid initiatives. Ewekia notes citizens are no longer able to cultivate their own food, so it must be imported; and because of its geographical location, Tuvalu has to exclusively rely on rain water for consumption. “Sea levels have risen approximately five millimeters each year, causing erosion to the coastline and flooding our communities. On the other hand, temperatures have been rising exponentially in the last decade.” Land scarcity is also an issue he notes, adding that “approximately 15 citizens must share a single housing.”
Saving Tuvalu’s International Campaign Co-Lead, Calan Simpson-Felicia, a New Zealand national, says “every year we do see more and more of a groundswell of support [for Tuvalu] especially from younger people.” He shares his hopefulness that there is a future for Tuvalu. “I know that the government is hoping for the best, but they’re planning for the worst,” he says. “The Tuvaluan are fighters. They’re warriors. They love their country, their islands, and they’re not going to give it up without trying their hardest.”
Being Creative with Climate Solutions
Individuals are clearly fighting back for Tuvalu — but so is government. No one will likely ever forget the powerful video of Foreign Minister Simon Kofe knee-deep in his country’s seawater while speaking to world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Last year, Tuvalu showed its leadership at COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, by being the first country to call for a fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty. As Prime Minister Natano said at the time, “The warming seas are starting to swallow our lands — inch by inch. But the world’s addiction to oil, gas and coal can’t sink our dreams under the waves.” Of course, nothing has changed since then and COP27 was largely seen as a mitigation failure. Tuvalu may want to consider pushing ahead further their plan with the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda to sue polluting countries through international law.
Tuvalu is also being creative with technology to cope with climate change. At COP27, Tuvalu announced it will be the first country to create a copy of itself in the metaverse in case rising sea levels submerge the island. As Foreign Minister Kofe explained at the time, “The tragedy of this outcome cannot be overstated […] Tuvalu could be the first country in the world to exist solely in cyberspace — but if global warming continues unchecked, it won’t be the last.” This process will likely include the recreation of Tuvalu’s natural beauty, its cultural heritage and sovereignty over its virtual land. In fact, there is also the possibility of moving onto the blockchain for everything from digital currency to “securing its ownership of economic and maritime zones.”
There is also renewed focus on climate adaptation by creating artificial islands. In the pre-pandemic era, Tuvalu rejected offers from Chinese companies to build such islands on geopolitical grounds, instead looking to Japan for support. This form of geoengineering has been used before, for instance the “City of Hope” or Hulhumalé in the Maldives which was designed with many green urban planning initiatives and ended up being Asia’s first 100% gigabit-enabled smart city for over 50,000 people. This could be promising for Tuvalu’s 12,000 citizens, though it is also worth noting possible side effects. Denmark attempted something similar — an island off the coast called Lynetteholm to house over 35,000 people yet environmental groups protested its negative impact on saltwater inflow channels coming in from the North Sea.
Future Solutions: An Activist Billionaire, Climate Tech and Scotland to the Rescue?
But let’s consider what else might Tuvalu do in this post-pandemic era to better cope with climate change. Well, it may sound like a joke but are there any billionaires who care about climate change and Tuvalu’s plight in particular? In recent years, billionaires have done a lot to help tackle global challenges, for instance Jack Ma distributing Covid masks to the US during the first year of the pandemic, Elon Musk sending satellite internet in the initial phase of the war in Ukraine and Bill Gates funding food engineering projects; an Egyptian billionaire even offered to buy a Greek island to solve the refugee crisis (though the government rejected his offer).
Climate tech may also be a key strategy for Tuvalu, though a controversial one. Creating an artificial island is one form of geoengineering but another option is solar geoengineering where tech is used to effectively cool the planet. Billionaires have been debating it for awhile, though many see it as a last resort with many possible drawbacks and even security implications. The US government is researching its feasibility and startups like Make Sunsets are already testing it, yet there is no regulation or clarity on what its impact might actually be.
Lastly, there was one silver lining at COP27 — the historic establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund that would mean developed countries would pay developing countries for climate events. Yet months later there is still no clarity on who will actually contribute to the fund, when it will be funded or which countries might receive money — if Tuvalu is even chosen. Perhaps Tuvalu could instead leverage Scotland’s fund which has already given Malawi two million pounds to recover from major storms — frankly Scotland could be an example for other countries to follow.
So, it’s really not over for Tuvalu — there are options. These “warriors” in government and civil society will keep fighting and could possibly even inspire other countries to prioritize climate change. As Simpson-Felicia put it, we need to remind ourselves that “if Tuvalu sinks, then the world sinks with it.”