Despite contributing less than 0.03% of total global carbon emissions, the Pacific islands are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Entire countries could be submerged under water in the next two to three decades. How do these island states fight for 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 govern itself as a nation. But without sovereign territory to stand on, can a country continue to exist?
This is the once unthinkable question facing some Pacific island countries. Due to the disasters caused by climate change, entire Pacific countries will soon become 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 nations like Tuvalu or Kiribati face some flooding.
Pacific islands are on the frontline of the climate crisis, despite contributing less than 0.03% of total global carbon emissions. And to circumvent the calamitous conditions caused by climate change, they are taking desperate measures to safeguard their existence.
A country without territory
On November 15, 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 nation would become the world’s first digital nation.
“Since COP26, the world has not acted,” he said, as the UN and Tuvalu flags swayed in the light ocean breeze behind him. “We had to take our own precautionary measures… Our land, our ocean, our culture are our people’s most precious assets. And to protect them from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we will move them to the cloud.
Located halfway between Hawaii and Australia, the group of nine islands that make up the country is home to a population of around 12,000. As a low lying atoll, it is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise, such as coastal erosion, contamination of freshwater sources and destruction of subsistence food crops. The country is doomed to become uninhabitable within the next 20 to 30 years. In order to preserve what remains, it will be the first country to replicate in the metaverse.
The move 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 one’s land is a form of preservation, a means of digitally replicating one’s territory and nurturing one’s culture. The virtual space would allow Tuvaluans to interact with their land and its natural beauty, but also to interact with each other using their own language and customs.
Tuvalu also plans to bring its administrative and governance systems online. But can he exercise his sovereignty over virtual lands? 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 governance features for a ‘digital twin’ of Tuvalu is feasible”. Examples like Estonia’s electronic residence system, a digital form of residence where non-Estonians can access services such as company registration, are cause for hope. The same goes for virtual embassies, like the one Sweden has established on the Second Life digital platform.
But getting the entire population of a country, even as small as Tuvalu, to interact 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,” Kelly and Foth say. Additionally, technological responses to climate change “often exacerbate the problem due to their high energy and resource consumption.”
Tuvalu’s digital replica will most likely resemble an online museum and digital community, but is unlikely to be an “ersatz nation-state”, according to the professors.
Relocation, a last resort
For Lavetanalagi Seru, policy coordinator of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), Tuvalu is exploring its options. The 30-year-old Fijian says there are still many challenges ahead. For example, the issue of Tuvalu’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the area where it has jurisdiction over resources. “What will happen to this? he asks: “The UN convention is very clear on how it is measured. It must be defined from a piece of solid ground.
Tuvalu’s future prospects are “heartbreaking” for Seru, who sees the fate of the small island state mirrored in his home country of Fiji. Although atolls like Tuvalu are still more vulnerable to climate disasters than other Pacific countries like Fiji, which have a higher altitude to rely on, they face similar challenges. “Nothing can grasp the pain, trauma and homelessness [Pacific Islanders will endure]this feeling of being disconnected from one’s roots,” says Seru.
With 65% of Fiji’s population living within 5 kilometers of the coastline, the threat of sea level rise is imminent.
For the past four years, a special branch of the Fijian government has been trying to figure out how to move the country. He has drawn up a 130-page plan titled “Standard Operating Procedures for Planned Relocations,” which will soon be submitted to the country’s cabinet for approval. The plan outlines how to relocate communities whose homes will soon be submerged. So far, six villages have already been relocated and 42 more are to be relocated within the next five to ten years.
“Relocating communities is our last resort,” says Seru, “it’s not something we should be doing in the first place. We should not cut our communities off from their ancestral land. And doing it with dignity is no small feat. In addition to houses, churches, schools, roads, health centers and essential infrastructure, moving a community also means transporting burial sites, for example.
Taking into account every custom and every need of a community is also vital. Moving a fishing community inland and having them farm on land can pose challenges, as can relocating elders to hilltops where access is difficult.
Seru grew up in a small town called Nausori and spent three years of her childhood among relatives in an intimate coastal community. Although he witnessed the consequences of climate change growing up, he didn’t make the connection back then. “We just thought it was a natural phenomenon,” he says. It wasn’t until he went to college that he started to pick up the pieces.
Then, in 2016, Cyclone Winston swept through the country and wiped out a third of Fiji’s GDP in damage.
“The roof of our family home was rolled up like a piece of paper by the winds,” Seru explains. “Our roots were damaged, so my family had to rely on food from supermarkets. You need money for these things. The cyclone destroyed so much that until today, some families have still not been able to rebuild their homes. “They’re just trying to put food on the table, they don’t think about the work they can do to earn a better life,” says Seru.
“The root cause of our problems”
Seru’s voice intensifies when asked what the international community can do better. His home, like many Pacific islands, is on the frontline 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 stop any further expansion of fossil fuel industries,” he says, “That is the root cause of our problems.” But although the scientific community, NGOs and climate activists like Seru have implored nations to divest from fossil fuels, multinationals like TotalEnergies and Shell are planning to open new gas and oil production sites.
There is also a crying need for funding. Seru explains that although vulnerable countries in the Pacific have plans for mitigating and adapting to climate-induced events, they do not have the money to execute those plans. “If you look at the series of disasters we face every year… One happens, people still recover, then another hits. Where are we going to find the money (to rebuild)? »
For the young Fijian, it is the responsibility of the countries “which have benefited on the back of our resources” to provide funds.
The COP27 summit concluded with a landmark climate-related “loss and damage” fund for developing countries that are 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 United States, 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 draft agreements.
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