Although they contribute less than 0.03% of the world’s total carbon emissions, the Pacific Islands are at the front line of the climate crisis. Entire countries could be submerged under water within the next two to three decades. How are these island states fighting for their survival?
A country is more than its land. A country is its people, its nature, its culture, its traditions, its history and its ability to self-govern as a nation. But without sovereign territory to stand on, can a country continue to exist?
This is the unthinkable question some Pacific Island nations are having to face. Due to disasters brought on by climate change, entire countries in the Pacific will soon become uninhabitable. Several are destined to become completely submerged by the end of the century. Even if the world manages to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, atoll nations like Tuvalu or Kiribati face certain inundation.
Pacific Islands are at the front line of the climate crisis, despite having contributed less than 0.03% of the world’s total carbon emissions. And to circumvent calamitous conditions brought on by climate change, they are taking desperate measures to safeguard their existence.
A country with no territory
On November 15, a few days after COP27 kicked off, Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe addressed the world with an urgent message. Standing behind a wooden lectern, he announced that the tiny Pacific Island country would become the world’s first digital nation.
“Since COP26, the world has not acted,” he said, while the UN and Tuvaluan flags swayed in the light ocean breeze behind him. “We’ve had to take our own precautionary steps… Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious assets of our people. And to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we’ll move them to the cloud.”
Sitting halfway between Hawaii and Australia, the group of nine islands that form the country hosts a population of about 12,000. As a low-lying atoll nation, it is especially vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels, like the erosion of shorelines, the contamination of fresh water sources and the destruction of subsistence food crops. The country is destined to become uninhabitable in the next 20 to 30 years. In order to preserve 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 preparatory plan for the worst-case scenario the country could face due to climate change. Creating a digital twin of its lands is a form of preservation, a way to digitally replicate its territory and maintain its culture. The virtual space would allow Tuvaluans to interact with their land and its natural beauty, but also to interact with one another using their own language and customs.
Tuvalu also plans to move its administrative and governance systems online. But can it practice sovereignty on 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 like Estonia’s e-residency system, a digital form of residency where non-Estonians can access services like company registration, are reason to hope. So are virtual embassies, like the one Sweden established in the digital platform Second Life.
But having the entire population of a country, even one as small as Tuvalu, interact online in real time is a technical challenge. “There are issues of bandwidth, computing power and the fact that many users have an aversion to headsets,” Kelly and Foth argue. What’s more, technological responses to climate change “often exacerbate the problem due to how energy and resource intensive they are.”
Tuvalu’s digital replica will most likely resemble an online museum and a digital community, but is not likely to be an “ersatz nation-state”, according to the professors.
Relocation, a last resort
For Lavetanalagi Seru, a policy coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), Tuvalu is exploring its options. The 30-year-old Fijian says there are still many challenges to be mulled over. For example, the question 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’s measured. It needs to be defined from a piece of dry land.”
The future prospects for Tuvalu are “heartbreaking” for Seru, who sees the fate of the tiny island state mirrored in his home country Fiji. Although atoll nations like Tuvalu are even more vulnerable to climate disasters than other Pacific countries like Fiji, which have higher elevation to count on, they are facing similar challenges. “Nothing can capture the pain and trauma and homelessness [Pacific Islanders will endure]that feeling of being disconnected from your roots,” says Seru.
With 65% of Fiji’s population living within 5 kilometers of the shoreline, the threat of rising sea levels is imminent.
Over the past four years, a special arm of the Fijian government has been trying to work out how to move the country. It has constructed a 130-page plan called the “Standard Operating Procedures for Planned Relocations”, which will soon head to the country’s cabinet for approval. The plan sets out how to relocate communities whose homes will soon be submerged. So far, six villages have already been moved and a further 42 are earmarked to be relocated in the next five to ten years.
“The relocation of communities is our last resort,” Seru says, “It’s not something we should be doing in the first place. We shouldn’t be cutting our communities off from their ancestral land.” And doing so with dignity is no easy feat. Alongside homes, churches, schools, roads, health centers and essential infrastructure, moving a community also means transporting burial grounds, for example.
To take into account each custom and need of a community is vital, too. Moving a fishing community inland and asking them to farm on land can pose challenges, as does relocating elders atop hills where access is complicated.
Seru grew up in a small town called Nausori and spent three years of his childhood among relatives in an intimate coastal community. Although he witnessed the consequences of climate change growing up, he didn’t connect the dots at the time. “We just thought it was a natural occurrence,” he recounts. It was only when he went to university that he began to put the pieces together.
Then, in 2016, Cyclone Winston swept across the country and wiped away a third of Fiji’s GDP in damages.
“The roof of our family home was rolled back like a piece of paper, due to the winds,” 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 until today, some families have still not been able to rebuild their homes. “They are just trying to put food on the table, they’re not thinking about what job they can get to earn a better life,” says Seru.
‘The root cause of our problems’
Seru’s voice intensifies when asked about what the international community can do better. His home, like many of the Pacific Islands, is on the front line of the climate crisis despite contributing only a tiny fraction to global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Developed countries, countries that use coal and produce fossil fuels, must end any further expansion of fossil fuel industries,” he says, “This is the root cause of our problems.” But although the scientific community, NGOs and climate activists like Seru have implored nations to divest away from fossil fuels, multinationals like TotalEnergies and Shell are planning to open new gas and oil production sites.
There is also a dire need for funding. Seru explains that, although vulnerable countries in the Pacific have plans for mitigating and adapting to climate-induced events, they don’t have the money to execute these plans. “If you look at the series of disasters we face every year… One happens, people are still recovering, and then another one strikes. Where are we going to get the money (to rebuild)?”
For the young Fijian, it is the responsibility of countries “who have benefitted on the back of our resources” to provide funds.
The COP27 summit concluded with a landmark climate ‘loss and damage’ fund, geared towards developing nations particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The money will cover the cost of damage that these countries cannot avoid or adapt to. Nearly 200 countries, including from the EU and the US, have agreed to contribute.
By 2050, up to 216 million people could be displaced due to climate change. Neither migration nor relocation were addressed in the COP27 conference agreement drafts.