Pacific islands are fighting for existence before rising sea levels swallow them

Although they contribute less than 0.03% of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions, the Pacific Islands are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Entire countries could be submerged under water within the next two to three decades. How do these island states fight for their survival?

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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 unthinkable question facing some Pacific Island nations. Due to disasters caused by climate change, entire countries in the Pacific Ocean 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 countries such as Tuvalu or Kiribati face some flooding.

The Pacific islands are on the front lines of the climate crisis, despite contributing less than 0.03% of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions. And to circumvent unfortunate conditions caused by climate change, they take desperate measures to secure their existence.

A country without territory

On November 15, a few days after COP27 started, Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe addressed the world with an urgent message. Standing behind a wooden lectern, he announced that the small Pacific island nation would become the world’s first digital nation.

“Since COP26, the world has not acted,” he said, as the flags of the United Nations and Tuvalu fluttered in the light sea breeze behind him. “We’ve had to take our own precautions… 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’re moving them to the cloud .”

Sitting halfway between Hawaii and Australia, the group of nine islands that make up the country hosts a population of around 12,000. As a low-lying atoll nation, it is particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels, such as erosion of coastlines, pollution of freshwater sources and destruction of essential crops. The country is destined to become uninhabitable in the next 20 to 30 years. To preserve what remains, it will be the first country to replicate itself in the metaverse.

This decision is part of Tuvalu’s Future Now Project, a preparedness plan for the worst-case scenario that the country may face due to climate change. Creating a digital twin of its lands is a form of conservation, a way to digitally replicate its territory and preserve its 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 move its administrative and governance systems online. But can it exercise 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 governance capabilities for a ‘digital twin’ of Tuvalu is feasible.” Examples such as Estonia’s e-residency system, a digital form of residency where non-Estonians can access services such as company registration, are reason to hope. So also virtual embassies, such as 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 technological challenge. “There are issues with bandwidth, computing power and the fact that many users have an aversion to headsets,” argue Kelly and Foth. Furthermore, technological responses to climate change “often exacerbate the problem because of how energy and resource intensive they are.”

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, 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 think about. For example, the issue of Tuvalu’s exclusive economic zone, the area where it has jurisdiction over resources. “What will happen to it?” 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 outlook for Tuvalu is “heartbreaking” for Seru, who sees the fate of the small island nation mirrored in his native Fiji. Although atoll countries like Tuvalu are even more vulnerable to climate disasters than other Pacific countries like Fiji, which have higher altitudes to reckon with, they face similar challenges. “Nothing can capture the pain and the trauma and the homelessness [Pacific Islanders will endure]that feeling of being disconnected from one’s roots,” says Seru.

With 65% of Fiji’s population living within 5 kilometers of the coast, the threat of rising sea levels is imminent.

For the past four years, a special arm of the Fijian government has been trying to figure out how to move the country. It has constructed a 130-page plan called “Standard Operating Procedures for Planned Relocations,” which will soon head to the country’s cabinet for approval. The plan outlines how to relocate communities whose homes will soon be submerged under water. So far, six villages have already been relocated and another 42 are earmarked for relocation within the next five to ten years.

“The displacement of communities is our last resort,” says Seru, “it is not something we should do in the first place. We should not cut our communities off from their ancestral lands.” And to do so with dignity is no easy feat.Besides housing, churches, schools, roads, health centers and necessary infrastructure, the relocation of a community also involves the transportation of, for example, burial grounds.

Taking into account every custom and need in a community is also crucial. Moving a fishing community inland and asking them to farm on land can present challenges, as can moving elders up into 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 did not connect the dots at the time. “We just thought it was a natural occurrence,” he says. It wasn’t until he was at university that he started putting the pieces together.

Then, in 2016, Cyclone Winston swept across the country, wiping out a third of Fiji’s GDP in damages.

“The roof of our family home was rolled back like paper because of the winds,” explains Seru, “Our root vegetables were damaged, so my family had to rely on food from supermarkets. You need money for those things.” The cyclone destroyed so much that to this day 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 what job they can get to have 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 of the Pacific Islands, is on the front lines 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 the fossil fuel industry,” he says, “This is the root cause of our problems.” But even as the scientific community, NGOs and climate activists like Seru have called on nations to divest from fossil fuels, multinationals like TotalEnergies and Shell are planning to open new gas and oil production facilities.

There is also a great need for funding. Seru explains that while vulnerable countries in the Pacific have plans to mitigate and adapt to climate-induced events, they do not 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 one hits. Where are we going to get the money (to rebuild)?”

For the young Fijian, it is the responsibility of countries “that have benefited from our resources” to provide funds.

The COP27 summit ended with a landmark “loss and damage” climate fund, targeting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The money will cover the cost of damages 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 was addressed in the draft COP27 conference agreement.

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