Though they contribute less than 0.03% of the world's total carbon emissions, the Pacific Islands are at the forefront of the climate crisis. Whole countries could be submerged under water within the next two to three decades. How are these island states fighting for their survival? </p><div> <p>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 a sovereign territory to stand on, can a country continue to exist?
This is the unthinkable question facing some Pacific Island nations. Due to the disasters caused by climate change, entire Pacific countries will soon become uninhabitable. Several are set 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 certain floods.
The Pacific Islands are at the forefront of the climate crisis, despite contributing less than 0.03% of the world’s total 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, just days after COP27 kicked off, Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe addressed an urgent message to the world. Standing behind a wooden lectern, he announced that the tiny Pacific island state would become the world’s first digital nation.
“Since COP26, the world hasn’t acted,” he said, as the flags of the United Nations and Tuvaluan fluttered in the light ocean breeze behind him. “We had to take our precautionary measures… Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious possessions of our people. And to keep them safe, whatever happens in the physical world, we’ll move them to the cloud.”
Located midway between Hawaii and Australia, the group of nine islands that make up the country is home to a population of approximately 12,000. As a low-lying atoll, it is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise, such as coastal erosion, contamination of fresh water sources and destruction of subsistence food crops. The country is expected to become uninhabitable in the next 20-30 years. 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 conservation, 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 beauties, 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 he exercise sovereignty over the virtual earth? For Nick Kelly and Marcus Foth, professors at the Queensland University of Technology, the answer is yes and no.
In an article published in The Conversation, Kelly and Foth argue that “combining these technological capabilities with governance features for a ‘digital twin’ of Tuvalu is feasible.” Examples such as Estonia’s e-residency system, a digital form of residence where non-Estonians can access services such as company registration, are cause for hope. Such are the virtual embassies, such as the Swedish one established in the digital platform Second Life.
But having the entire population of a country, even as small as Tuvalu, 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 headphones,” Kelly and Foth argue. Furthermore, technological responses to climate change “often exacerbate the problem due to their energy and resource intensity”.
Tuvalu’s digital replica will most likely resemble an online museum and digital community, but it’s not likely to be a “surrogate nation-state,” according to the professors.
Transfer, last resort
For Lavetanalagi Seru, 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 ponder. For example, the issue of the exclusive economic zone of Tuvalu, the area in which it has jurisdiction over resources. “What will become of that?” he asks: “The UN convention is very clear on how it is measured. It must be defined by a piece of land.
The future prospects for Tuvalu are “heartbreaking” for Seru, who sees the fate of the small island state mirrored in his home country of Fiji. While atoll nations like Tuvalu are still more vulnerable to climate disasters than other Pacific countries like Fiji, which have higher altitude to rely on, they are facing similar challenges. “Nothing can capture 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 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 Transfers,” which will soon go 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 relocated and 42 more are expected to be relocated in the next five to ten years.
“Community relocation is our last resort,” Seru says, “It’s not something we should be doing in the first place. We should not isolate our communities from their ancestral land.” And doing it with dignity is no easy feat. Alongside houses, churches, schools, roads, health centers and essential infrastructure, moving a community also means moving cemeteries, for example.
Taking into account every custom and need of a community is also vital. Moving a fishing community inland and asking them to farm on land can be a challenge, as can relocating the elderly to hilltops where access is difficult.
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 says. It wasn’t until he went to college that he started putting the pieces together.
Then, in 2016, Cyclone Winston swept across the country and wiped out a third of Fiji’s GDP in damage.
“The roof of our family house was flipped over like a piece of paper, due to the wind,” Seru explains, “Our roots 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 still have not been able to rebuild their homes. “They’re just trying to put food on the table, they’re not thinking about what job they can get to make a better living,” Seru says.
“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 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 industries,” he says, “That’s the root cause of our problems.” But although the scientific community, NGOs and climate activists like Seru have been pleading for nations to divest from fossil fuels, multinationals like TotalEnergies and Shell are planning to open new oil and gas production sites.
There is also a desperate need for funding. Seru explains that while vulnerable Pacific countries have plans to mitigate and adapt to climate-induced events, they don’t have the money to execute those 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 will we find the money (to rebuild)?
For the young Fijian, it is the responsibility of the countries “that have benefited from our resources” to provide funds.
The COP27 summit concluded with a historic climate “loss and damage” fund for developing nations particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The money will cover the cost of the damage these countries cannot avoid or adapt to. Nearly 200 countries, including those from the EU and the US, have agreed to contribute.
By 2050, up to 216 million people could be displaced by climate change. Neither migration nor relocation were addressed in the drafts of the COP27 conference agreement.