Although they contribute less than 0.03% of the world’s total carbon emissions, the Pacific Islands are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Entire countries could be flooded within two to three decades. How do these island nations fight for their survival?
A country is more than its country. A country is its people, its nature, its culture, its traditions, its history and its capacity for self-government as a nation. But can a country continue to exist without a sovereign territory to stand on?
This is the unthinkable question facing some Pacific islands. Disasters caused by climate change will soon render entire countries in the Pacific Ocean uninhabitable. Several are destined to be completely submerged by the end of the century. Even if the world manages to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, atoll states like Tuvalu or Kiribati will face certain inundation.
The Pacific Islands are on the frontline of the climate crisis, despite contributing less than 0.03% of the world’s total carbon emissions. And to avoid catastrophic conditions due to climate change, they are taking desperate measures to secure their existence.
A country without territory
On November 15, a few days after COP27 started, Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe spoke addressed the world with an urgent message. Standing behind a wooden lectern, he announced that the tiny Pacific island would become the world’s first digital nation.
“Since COP26, the world has done nothing,” he said, as UN and Tuvaluan flags fluttered in the light sea breeze behind him. “We have had to take our own precautions… Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious possessions of our people. And to protect them from harm no matter what happens in the physical world, we move them to the cloud.”
Halfway between Hawaii and Australia, the group of nine islands that make up the country is home to about 12,000 residents. As a low-lying atoll nation, it is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels, such as the erosion of coastlines, the pollution of freshwater resources, and the destruction of subsistence food crops. The land is destined to become uninhabitable in the future 20 to 30 years. To keep what’s left, it will be the first country to replicate itself in the metaverse.
This decision is part of Tuvalu’s Future Now project, a preliminary plan for the worst-case scenario the country could face as a result of climate change. Creating a digital twin of his country is a form of preservation, a way to digitally replicate his territory and preserve his culture. The virtual space would allow Tuvaluans to interact with their country and its natural beauty, as well as interact with each other in their own language and customs.
Tuvalu also plans to move its administrative and governance systems online. But can it exercise sovereignty over virtual land? For Nick Kelly and Marcus Foth, professors at the Queensland University of Technology, the answer is yes and no.
In an article published on The Conversation, Kelly and Foth argue that “combining these technological capabilities with features of governance for a ‘digital twin’ of Tuvalu is feasible.” Examples such as Estonia’s e-residence system, a digital form of residency where non-Estonians can access services such as company registration, are cause for hope. So also virtual embassieslike the one Sweden has founded in the digital platform Second Life.
But getting the entire population of a country, even one as small as Tuvalu, to communicate online in real time is a technical challenge. “There are issues with bandwidth, computing power, and the fact that many users have an aversion to headsets,” argue Kelly and Foth. In addition, technological responses to climate change “often exacerbate the problem because they consume a lot of energy and resources.”
The digital replica of Tuvalu will most likely resemble an online museum and digital community, but is unlikely to be an “ersatz nation-state,” according to the professors.
Moving, a last resort
For Lavetanalagi Seru, a policy coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), Tuvalu is exploring the possibilities. The 30-year-old Fijian says there are still many challenges to consider. For example, the issue of Tuvalu’s exclusive economic zone, the area where it has jurisdiction over resources. “What will happen to that?” he asks: “The UN convention is very clear about how it is measured. It must be defined from a piece of dry land.
The future prospects for Tuvalu are “heartbreaking” for Seru, who sees the fate of the small island nation reflected in his homeland of Fiji. While atoll states like Tuvalu are even more vulnerable to climate catastrophe than other Pacific nations like Fiji, which can count on higher elevations, they face similar challenges. “Nothing can capture the pain, trauma and homelessness [Pacific Islanders will endure]that feeling of being disconnected from your roots,” says Seru.
Of 65% of Fiji’s population living within 5 kilometers of the coastline, the threat of rising sea levels is imminent.
For the past four years, a special arm of Fiji’s government has been trying to figure out how to move the land. It has a 130-page build plan called the “Standard Operating Procedures for Planned Relocations”, which will soon go to the country’s cabinet for approval. The plan outlines how to relocate communities whose homes will soon be flooded. Six villages have already been relocated so far and another 42 villages will be relocated in the next five to ten years.
“Moving communities is our last resort,” says Seru, “It’s not something we should be doing in the first place. We must not cut our communities off from their ancestral lands.” And doing so with dignity is no sinecure. In addition to homes, churches, schools, roads, health centers and essential infrastructure, moving a municipality also means transporting cemeteries, for example.
It is also essential to take into account every custom and need of a community. Moving a fishing community inland and asking them to farm the land can be challenging, as can moving the elderly to hills where access is difficult.
Seru grew up in a small town called Nausori and spent three years of his childhood with relatives in an intimate coastal community. Although he grew up with the impacts of climate change, he did not connect the dots at the time. “We just thought it was a natural occurrence,” he says. It wasn’t until he got to college that he started putting the pieces together.
Then, in 2016, Cyclone Winston wiped over the country and wiped out a third of Fiji’s GDP in damage.
“The roof of our family home was rolled back by the wind like a piece of paper,” Seru explains. “Our root crops were damaged, so my family had to rely on food from supermarkets. You need money for those things.” The cyclone destroyed so much that some families to this day have not been able to rebuild their homes “They are just trying to put food on the table, they don’t think about what job they can get to earn a better life” , Seru says.
‘The cause of our problems’
Seru’s voice intensifies when asked what the international community can do better. His home, like many of the Pacific Islands, is on the front lines of the climate crisis, despite contributing only a small fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Developed countries, countries that use coal and produce fossil fuels, must stop any further expansion of the fossil fuel industry,” he says, “this is the root cause of our problems.” But while the scientific community, NGOs and climate activists like Seru have been begging countries to stop using fossil fuels, multinationals like TotalEnergies and Shell are planning to new gas and oil production sites.
There is also a great need for financing. Seru explains that while fragile Pacific nations have plans to mitigate and adapt to climate change, they don’t have the money to implement those plans. “If you look at the series of disasters we face every year… One happens, people are still recovering, and then another hits. Where are we going to get the money (to rebuild)?”
For young Fiji, it is the responsibility of countries “that have benefited from our resources” to provide funds.
The COP27 summit concluded with a historic climate fund ‘loss and damage’, targeting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The money covers the cost of damage that these countries cannot avoid or adapt to. Nearly 200 countries, including the EU and the US, have pledged to contribute.