“If we save Tuvalu, we can save the world.” These are the words of Tuvalu’s Prime Minister, Rt. Honourable, Enele Sosene Sopoaga when he was in Canberra on route to the recently concluded UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Council of the Parties (COP24) in Katowice, Poland. Prime Minister Sopoaga was in Canberra discussing the impacts of climate change on Tuvalu at a joint event organised by the Climate Change Institute, The Pacific Institute and the ANU Fenner School for Environment & Society.
Climate change poses an existential threat to the Pacific island states. Due to being located at low-lying sea levels, they are in danger of being submerged within 30 years if there is no international intervention. Most notably required is the adherence to the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The best opportunity for this is in accordance with the Paris Agreement, which holds the long-term goal of minimising global temperatures.
As Prime Minister Sopoaga says, climate change is the most serious threat to humanity that we face today. Having been engaged in climate change issues for over 20 years, Prime Minister Sopoaga was instrumental in getting Loss and Damage on the agenda of the Paris Agreement; a crucial aspect of climate change negotiations. In spite of what’s at stake to their nation, it’s highly impressive that Prime Minister Sopoaga and his administration have acted with tremendous grace and understanding, even when facing governments that are less keen to take action on climate change.
It is no surprise that the effects of human-induced climate change pose a grave risk to Pacific island states. As one of the smallest island states in the Pacific, Tuvalu’s future depends on sound climate change decisions. Their marine and coastal environments face rising sea levels, coral acidification, and coral bleaching, amongst other effects. Additionally, the threat to their water resources, fisheries, tourism, agriculture and health industries severely hinder their economic capabilities.
So what are Tuvalu’s options in the face of rising sea levels? Building coastal protective measures and raising the islands higher than sea levels are solutions that are being explored, but aren’t devoid of contention. Some have suggested climate migration but Prime Minister Sopoaga says Tuvalu cannot migrate and take their culture with them. The progress of the people lies in the development of its own culture adapted to its land and even natural climate. Having to suddenly adopt the habits and customs of a region that may be unnatural to them, is not likely to bode well for their cultural evolution.
However, if the people of Tuvalu were to be displaced, this will be a security issue that needs careful consideration by the UN and other relevant parties in support of the Global Compact for Migration. The goal is to have a framework protecting resettlement, basic rights, access to food, water and health and also civic rights and responsibilities like the right to participate and the right to vote. On this, Prime Minister Sapoaga is planning to propose a UN resolution in the future, a policy on the rights of people displaced due to climate change.
Climate change has been a hotly debated topic within the international system for decades and has proved to be a significant diplomatic challenge of the 21st century. Even the Paris Agreement, heralded as the greatest diplomatic success in favour of climate change, materialised after several rounds of intense negotiations between leading stakeholders in the climate change debate. The rift between low-lying vulnerable islands and the more powerful developed nations was highlighted during the debate to bring global temperatures down. While the islands requested a goal of 1.5 degrees as recommended by the IPCC special report, others argued for 1.5 to be an aspirational goal while targeting 2 degrees instead. In the end, the terminology adopted was an ambiguous ‘well below 2 degrees’ goal. However, it is expected that the issue will be revisited at COP25 in Chile in November next year, as the survival of low-lying islands very strongly depends on it. Even the success of the COP24 conference in Katowice, Poland last year is an indication that global leaders are committed to reversing the effects of climate change.
Currently, the world has warmed about 1C since the industrial revolution. From the finding of the IPCC report, many COP24 delegates hope to see a fast increase in ambition before 2020 to keep the chances of staying under 1.5C realistic.
Meanwhile, Tuvalu is focused on ensuring sustainable development and building resilience so that its citizens can cope better in the future. This involves capacity-building, policy-orientation, food security, education and governance amongst other things that will strengthen the ability of Tuvaluans to handle disasters. The aim is to make Tuvalu as self-reliant as possible. Hence, measures such as reclamation, protecting the island foreshores and projects to raise the islands to protect the people have been taken.
Prime Minister Sopoaga, when he was in Canberra, also showed appreciation to the Australian Government for the long-term help that they have been providing to the nation and hoped this support will continue for several initiatives they hope to take, including one aimed at a Pacific Island Climate Change Insurance Facility. It’s imperative for the Pacific Island countries without economies that attract investment for insurance to have some sort of designated insurance cover, otherwise people dealing with land erosion or other climate change effects will be left to their own devices. In addition to that, they are also hoping to gain Australia’s help with the previously mentioned resolution to protect the rights of people displaced by climate change.
And for the sceptics who deny climate change science and are even so bold as to say that Tuvalu has increased in size since WWII, Prime Minister Sopoaga’s response is to simply invite them to visit Tuvalu and witness what the effects of rising sea levels mean to the livelihood of people who live on islands that are hardly 4m above sea level.
The IPCC report clearly says if no action is taken to immediately reduce GHG emissions at a global level, the impact on small islands like Tuvalu will be dire and catastrophic. There is a big push here for countries to up their volition, to cut carbon deeper and with greater urgency. Perhaps Prime Minister Sopoaga is right. If we are able to rally enough to save Tuvalu, it may be a model framework for saving other islands and regions vulnerable to climate change disaster. This might even include our big island if we should ever need it.