Paradise Lost – A Nation’s Struggle Against the Waves

Devastation after Cyclone Pam. | Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Just six years ago, in March 2015, Pam was barrelling towards the Vanuatu archipelago at speeds reaching 180 miles per hour. Pam, of course, was a cyclone that affected the southernmost provinces that suffered the destruction of 50 to 90% of shelters1 Pam continued with furious energy on its path of devastation. Tuvalu, a country made of multiple low-lying islands had been experiencing increasingly seasonal high tides, known as king tides, which had started days prior to the storm’s landfall.2 These ever increasingly damaging tides, combined with the storm surge ravaged the country, displacing up to half of the nation’s eleven thousand residents. The storm struck hardest on the outlying inhabited atolls; destroying much of Tuvalu’s agriculture, and completely submerging one of the nine islands that make up the country. In total, Cyclone Pam caused an estimated ninety-five million dollars in damages for the small nation, equivalent to twice the country’s forty-five million gross domestic product.3

Aerial view of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, 2011. | Courtesy of Lily-Anne Homasi / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)
Aerial view of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, 2011. | Courtesy of Lily-Anne Homasi | Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

The man coordinating rescue operations and organizing international aid was Enele Sopoaga, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. Having lived on the island for the past fifty years, and having just been elected as Prime Minister in 2014, Sopoaga had known climate change was an existential threat to his nation, and the increasing storms eroding the banks of the atolls only further proved this to him. 4

Enele Sopoaga saw a clear urgency with the incoming climate accords negotiations that were scheduled to take place in Paris in December. It was likely a small nation tucked away in the corner of the Pacific, only with a few thousand citizens could stand up to the heavy emissions produced by the United States, European Union, or China. Those nations collectively had 52% of all emissions in 2015 and approaching nearly 2 billion citizens combined.5The European Union aimed to reduce emissions to aim for below 2 degrees centigrade for the next century, a number The prime minister thought as being far too high. At that rate, the large portions of the islands of Tuvalu could still become uninhabitable due to sea-level rise, which at the current time has risen about 3.6 millimeters per year.6

Alone, going against the economic and political might of the European Union, and other global powers would be a gargantuan operation. For such a task, Sopoaga knew exactly which organization to turn to in order to amplify this critical message; The Alliance of Small Island Nations (AOSIS). AOSIS consists of 20% of the total UN Membership, and 28% of all developing nations. The Alliance of Small Island Nations was initially started by neighboring Kiribati, who’d been slowly building the group throughout the Pacific, and across the world for collective action against climate change. Collectively, these nations have contributed less than one percent to global climate emissions 7. Sopoaga was more familiar than most world leaders with the AOSIS, having chaired the AOSIS between 2005 and 2006 before becoming the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. Having advocated for his nation in multiple international meetings in the past decade, these talks in late December could make or break his entire nation’s future. The AOSIS began as a small forum of Pacific Island States but expanded to include nations in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and even some non-island states such as Suriname, Guyana, and Belize.

Having shored up one fifth of the United Nation’s members, he and the Alliance of Small Island Nations were ready to negotiate in Paris on the behalf of their countries. Their work started as soon as the opening ceremony concluded, entering into negotiations with major world trading blocks, and meeting with representatives of nations individually to snowball support for their proposals 8

The European delegation continued to advocate for limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees, seeing the proposal for 1.5 degrees as unrealistic, stating that the 2 degrees centigrade was likely all they could do. For many Western nations, they seemed to agree with the European Union, those participating in the talks saw 2 degrees centigrade as the absolute lowest they could go. Developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia argued that The European Union, The United States, as well as other industrialized nations, burned carbon to modernize, and asserted that they should have the right to do the same, and as a result, opposed the 1.5 limits proposed by the AOSIS group. Right now, the AOSIS’ primary goal seemed like a pipedream to many nations even inside the group.9

Due to the heavy opposition to their proposals, the opening statements at the Paris Accords would be their last chance to state their case. He teamed up with Marshallese minister Tom deBrum, who was slowly building a coalition of developing nations that had been collectively called the High Ambition Coalition. The collation consisted of many of the AOSIS nations initially. Over the course of the months leading up to the Paris Summit, as well as even during it, the High Ambition Coalition was able to keep slowly growing, with even larger carbon producers joining after the last. During these negotiations, the heads of states of many Pacific Island nations gave speeches. Sopoaga waited patiently after president after president, prime minister after prime minister gave their opening statements until finally, it was his turn. He was now in the once in a lifetime position to make a case for his country’s continued existence in front of some of the most powerful global powers. During his speech in November 2015, he hammered on the importance of a lower threshold, stating the following;

“Tuvalu’s future at current warming, is already bleak, any further temperature increase will spell the total demise of Tuvalu…. For Small Island Developing States, Least Developed Countries, and many others, setting a global temperature goal of below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels is critical. I call on the people of Europe to think carefully about their obsession with 2 degrees. Surely, we must aim for the best future we can deliver and not a weak compromise”10

-Enele S. Sopoaga, In his keynote speech in Paris, delivered on November 30th, 2015.

His speech, along with the efforts of the High Ambition Coalition and AOSIS  rallying major nations in Europe and securing the support of the United States of America behind their target, was able to convince them to accept the 1.5-degree threshold11

A panel of UN Executives celebrating after the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement | Courtesy of Hajue Staudt via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the rest of the small island nations rejoiced at this news. Though this victory took years to achieve, most recognize this, as one step forward on the path to a greener world, and for these small nations, a step towards securing the existence of the very land they are built upon. A problem with the Paris Climate Agreement is that there is no mechanism to enforce the agreements each nation has individually signed, meaning the adherence to the agreement is largely up to each individual nation’s discretion. A notable example of this is former U.S. President Donald J. Trump removing the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. Although leaving the agreement is a particularly drastic measure, a nation doesn’t necessarily have to withdraw from the agreement, however, with many nations across the globe failing to meet the goals that they set for themselves in 2020.

In Europe, large nations such as Great Britain, Germany, and Poland have largely failed in their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Germany for example is the largest economy in Europe and is usually seen as a role model for such international agreements in the region. Berlin has committed one hundred million dollars towards the forty eight least developed economies to assist them in meeting their Paris Climate goals. On the home front, however, the German government admitted that it is likely to fail at reaching its own goals for 2020. 12 It seems that in order to further reduce the risk of the thousands of islands disappear beneath the waves, as well as to curb more global effects of a warming climate, the Alliance – AOSIS and other international organizations must hold each other accountable on the international stage to ensure they stay below 1.5 degrees centigrade.

Given the direction of current trends, developing nations such as the ones who comprise the AOSIS face a monumental task for sustainable development that can both improve the quality of life for its citizens, as well as developing in a sustainable, carbon-minimal manner for the future of their nation. Tuvalu as a sovereign nation has the smallest economy in the world, with a nominal GDP of 45 million dollars. Per capita, this is about 2,000 dollars. 13 Classified as a Least Developed Country (LDC) by the United Nations, the country’s small population is largely reliant on tourism, fishing, and is heavily dependent on international aid from international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Tuvalu’s small, ten-thousand strong population is also far too small to embrace a largely service-based economy like that of smaller nations such as Monaco, and is relatively isolated from global trade routes being in the center of the Pacific Ocean. Such challenges for the nation’s development will only become harder to overcome as the nation seeks to reduce carbon emissions.

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, the tourism oriented economy of Tuvalu had been suffering greatly, slowing growth significantly, as most nations, including themselves, were forced to lock down in order to stem the spread of the disease worldwide. The nation’s single hospital in the capital of Funafuti was dangerously ill-equipped for a major outbreak, and with a lack of service outside of the main island’s immediate area.  The food security of the nation was also heavily threatened due to the lack of any arable land, and negotiations were opened up with nearby nations to allow the shipping of food, fuel, and medical supplies beginning shortly after the shutdown. 14

As mentioned with Tuvalu’s unfortunately small health infrastructure, another issue with the sustainable development of the atolls is how unevenly portions of the nation are being developed, with the further outlying islands receiving less investments and and lagging behind to improve its infrastructure. This is particularly important given that these were the very islands that had to be evacuated after cyclone Pam. The nation’s islands are spread out over a large area of the South Pacific, despite having fewer than ten square miles of terrestrial land. Expanding and maximizing the use of the nation’s limited resources is key to allowing the nation to prosper in the coming century. Tuvalu has started the process by creating a sovereign trust fund in 1999 in order to achieve greater economic autonomy. As of 2018, the Tuvalu Trust Fund has 174 million Australian dollars worth of assets shored up, which is used to cover budget shortfalls and improve infrastructure. Such an investment may prove to be invaluable to the nation as it withstands mother nature’s onslaught at an ever-increasing severity and faster pace.

Though Germany’s domestic approach to the Paris Accords is off to a rocky start, its method of offering international aid to less developed states is a strategy that may help greatly in the fight against rising seas. International cooperation between developing and developed nations can help greatly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels when seeking to industrialize.  Even the Alliance of Small Island States has begun to take up a common role in assisting member nations, helping in the cleanup of natural disasters, organizing climate summits, and most recently, aiding in handling the 2019 Coronavirus global pandemic. Providing these states with the means to develop could disincentivize their governments from investing in coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. Going forward, It seems that the only way smaller nations such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and other members of the Alliance of Small Island States can working towards slowing down climate change will be to work in tandem with larger nations together for a common goal.

Given the dire situation, Tuvalu and many other low-lying nations are in, where most of their landmass would disappear before the end of 2100, even more aggressive measures are needed to prevent the widespread devastation of these island nations. Current solutions to the problem of climate change in small nations such as Tuvalu include fortifying the coastlines. This can be done with concrete or trees, which help reduce erosion and absorb Carbon Dioxide. Another method favored by Kiribati includes purchasing more land on neighboring Fiji, a much larger island nation that can be used as a relocation site should the entire nation of Kiribati become uninhabitable15.

Kiribati’s new seawall, made from organic trees. The roots that grow from them help prevent erosion, and the leaves help absorb carbon from the atmosphere. | Courtesy of Flickr.

These options to fight off sea level rise, as well as relocating entire nations on foreign land are both costly measures that will drastically impact the lives of all citizens of Tuvalu. If necessary this will be the first ever time that an entire country must be evacuated for good. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of Tuvalu’s story is how unremarkable the disappearance of an entire country from the world map would be received internationally, far from any major shipping lands, seemingly of little importance, and being small in almost every other metric, none outside close neighbors in the South Pacific would even notice the country’s disappearance. Tuvalu’s peaceful corner of the world make it challenging to generate serious and sustained international concern about its impending fate.

Other small nations who find themselves in Tuvalu’s position can take steps to secure their existence by following the lessons in leadership from former Prime Minister Sopoaga. Using international organizations such as the Alliance of Small Island States, Tuvalu and other smaller countries can build coalitions consisting of smaller states back by powerful ones committed to slowing the advance of climate change for future rounds of international talks and allow the rest of the world to hear the urgency of the unique threats climate change poses to the small, low-lying island nations and press for more international coordinated action.

 

  1. N,d, 2015 Cyclone Pam: Facts, FAQs, and how to help, https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-relief-news-stories/2015-vanuatu-cyclone-pam-facts .
  2. Bullfrog Films/TVE Joost De Haas, Paradise Domain, (2001)
  3. Sydney Afp, Taipei Times, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2015/03/16/2003613651.
  4. Damien Cave, “China is Leasing an Entire Pacific Island. Its Residents Are Shocked. .”  (New York: New York Times, 2019) 1-2.
  5. Kyle Almond, CNN, “Rising Sea Levels Are Threatening This Island Paradise” https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/05/world/tuvalu-climate-change-cnnphotos/.
  6. Sean Gallagher, “’One Day We’ll just disappear’:  Tuvalu’s Sinking Islands”., The Guardian, May 16, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/16/one-day-disappear-tuvalu-sinking-islands-rising-seas-climate-change.
  7. Adelle Thomas, Climate change and small islands: more scientific evidence of high risks, https://climateanalytics.org/blog/2020/climate-change-and-small-islands-more-scientific-evidence-of-high-risks/.
  8. Timothee Ourbak, The Paris Agreement and climate change negotiations: Small Islands, big players, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10113-017-1247-9#Abs1.
  9. UN Development Project, Tuvalu Wields New Data in Fight Against Climate Change, https://www.pacific.undp.org/content/pacific/en/home/presscenter/articles/2020/tuvalu-wields-new-data-in-the-fight-against-climate-change.html.
  10. Enele S. Sopoaga, Keynote Statement Delivered by The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, the Honourable Enele S. Spoaga At the Leaders Events for Heads of State And Government at the Opening of the COP21, http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/paris_nov_2015/application/pdf/cop21cmp11_leaders_event_tuvalu.pdf.
  11. The Independent, Pacific Island Tuvalu Calls for 1.5 Degrees Global Warming Limit or face total demise, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/pacific-island-tuvalu-calls-1-5-degrees-global-warming-limit-or-face-total-demise-a6756941.html.
  12. n.d,  Germany’s New Government Deal Fails Paris Climate Accord Test, Climate Change News, https://www.climatechangenews.com/2018/03/12/germanys-new-government-deal-fails-paris-climate-accord-test/.
  13. n.n, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/SPROLLs/world-economic-outlook-databases#sort=%40imfdate%20descending/.
  14. Carol Farbotko, Taukiei Kitara, How is Tuvalu securing against COVID-19?,  DevPolicyBlog, https://devpolicy.org/how-is-tuvalu-securing-against-covid-19-20200406/
  15. Sarah Zhang, Sea Level Rise is Forcing This Island Nation to buy Land 1900km Away in Fiji, https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/07/sea-level-rise-is-forcing-this-island-nation-to-buy-land-1900km-away-in-fiji/.

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17 Responses

  1. It’s a disturbing trend how, despite us in the developed world producing the most pollution, the ones who will suffer most from a climate disaster would be the smaller nations who barely contributed anything. A very well written, if slightly depressing article. I hope that we can get our act together in time to prevent such a crisis from destroying several island nations in the pacific or Caribbean.

  2. This is an extremely topic that I hope causes more people to become aware and talk about how climate change impacts smaller nations. It is difficult for Islands like those mentioned in the article to advocate for environmental change when Large countries such as the United States and European countries make up a lot of the world’s environmental damage. It is so great that you wrote about this topic!

  3. I found this article to be extremely important as well as interesting since it is not a topic often discussed. It was impactful to learn that these smaller nations/islands suffer from the affects of climate change despite not being a large contributor to it. I love how the author adressed an issue often overlooked. The author presented the information on these smaller islands such as Tuvalu in a detailed manner.

  4. The subject you address in this article is critical. I like how you mentioned small nations and islands that are the most affected but aren’t major contributors to the problem. You delivered the information in a way that was both engaging and insightful, enabling me to learn more about this critical topic. Great Article!

  5. This was an extremely topical, well written article that detailed the unique issues that small countries face as a result of climate change. Situations like these are important to talk about in order to emphasize the need for action. It is especially tragic, as the article notes, that small countries like these are the ones that face the brunt of the impact of climate change, despite not being the bigger contributors to the issue.

  6. Hi Aaron! I really enjoyed reading this article and found the information that you provided to be very interesting. I had no prior knowledge on the struggles that low lying nations like Tuvalu were facing and what kind of step they would need to take for their future. Issues such as these are not prevalent in the minds of many people when they think of climate change. I feel like most think about how temperatures rise and we have very hot summers, but these storms are just as important to know about and prevent. Great job!

  7. The topic the author chose is not talked about a lot so I found that their article was extremely important! Global warming is one of the biggest threats that is facing humanity right now so this article is very current and relevant. The author did a good job at capturing the reader’s attention through the use of details. I feel as if small islands should be included more in conversations about global warming.

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