Tuvalu is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. It is one of the worst case illustrating the damaging effects of climate change. COP21 and other strategies are the country’s only ways to pressure the international community to strike a deal which would effectively slow down the climate deregulation process, thus buying more time to the islands before they are covered by the seas.
Tuvalu is made of nine tiny islands (five of which are coral atolls), located in the South Pacific somewhere halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The country spreads over a total of 26 square kilometers of land. It is also, with a little over 10,000 inhabitants, the third-least populous sovereign state in the world, after the Vatican City and Nauru.
The islands were not inhabited until the 14th century, when Samoans, Tongans and settlers from other Polynesian islands migrated there. The territories were discovered by the Spanish in the 16th century. The island of Funafuti, where the current capital is, was then visited by the Brits who gave it the name of Ellice Island, after the name of the ship they were embarked on. The name was then extended to the archipelago. Between 1850 and 1875, many Tuvaluans were kidnapped for forced labour on plantations in Fiji and Queensland. Combined with the introduction of European diseases, the population of Tuvalu dropped from 20,000 to 3,000. In 1892, Ellice Islands were merged with the Gilbert Islands as a British protectorate, a situation which lasted until 1975. The name of Tuvalu, meaning “eight standing together” replaced that of Ellice Islands. Three years later, the territory obtained its independence. (For more details about the history of Tuvalu, click here)
Irreversible climate change
Tuvalu’s doomed situation is what has been bringing this country to the headlines: it is so far one of the places in the world which has been the most affected by climate change. The archipelago is, on average, at 2 meters above sea level, with the culminating point at 4,6 meters. With the global rise of the seas, Tuvalu is bound to eventually drown. The emergency of the situation has been raised already in 1989 when the UN listed “Tuvalu as one of a number of island groups most likely to disappear beneath the sea in the 21st century because of global warming”.
Global warming has been affecting Tuvalu in many different ways. Among others, the rising of the seas threatens human activities. The coral reefs which surround most atolls are being damaged, which jeopardizes the fish stock, Tuvalu’s only national resource and crucial for feeding the population. The sea is also “invading underground fresh water supplies, which has consequences for farming, while drought constantly threatened to limit drinking water. Annual spring tides appear to be getting higher each year, eroding the coastline.” Global warming has also brought in more extreme weather conditions in the region – cyclones especially – as illustrated by Tropical Cyclone Pam which hit Tuvalu and Vanuatu on March 10, 2015. Among other consequences, “Cyclone Pam has redrawn the map of Tuvalu, scouring away coastlines, cutting an island in half, and making one islet disappear altogether.” Plus, “researchers projected that international migration would increase sharply by 2055 from Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru. The study found storms and “king tides” are likely to worsen. Sea levels have risen about 20 centimeters in the past century.”
When Cyclone Pam tore Tuvalu and the Vanuatu apart, the Red Cross and other humanitarian aid organizations came to the rescue of the islanders. The Italian Foreign Ministry also donate 100,000 euros to Tuvalu and 300,000 to Vanuatu for rebuilding the two countries. However, as highlighted by the Tuvaluan Prime Minister at COP21, “While [the Tuvaluans] were grateful for the assistance [they] received from the relief community, this ad hoc response to the impacts of climate change cannot continue. We need a permanent mechanism for Loss and Damage anchored in the Paris Treaty to give us the assurance that the necessary response to climate change impacts will be forthcoming.”
Seeking new land
One must understand the gravity of the situation: Tuvalu may soon disappear, swallowed by the seas. The rising of the seas and cyclones have already pushed many to flee the archipelago to find safer living conditions – it is estimated that the Tuvaluan diaspora in New Zealand already regroups 2,600 individuals. However, not every inhabitant of Tuvalu has the financial means to emigrate.
The government of Tuvalu is currently seeking solutions for its population. Fiji has recently “reaffirmed it will offer permanent refuge to citizens of Tuvalu and Kiribati should the risk of rising sea levels intensify in their islands” and New Zealand also agreed to welcome more refugees. Australia has so far not made any commitment.
The UN Climate Summit currently taking place in Paris has been the perfect platform for Tuvalu and the other endangered territories around the world to make their voices heard.
The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, the Honourable Enele S. Sopoaga, made the following declarations at the Leaders Events for Heads of State and Government at the Opening of the COP21 on November 30, 2015:
“Today, we stand here facing one of the greatest challenges of humankind, – climate change. We are at a critical point of history … Tuvalu’s future at current warming, is already bleak, any further temperature increase will spell the total demise of Tuvalu. No leader around this room carries such a level of worry and responsibility … 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 … Tuvalu is already suffering the impacts of climate change.”
(For the full address, click here)
Tuvalu has been an apparent leader of the fight taken on by small countries to put pressure on the big ones to come up with solutions and sign a deal. US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon both met with Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sapoaga during COP21, thus illustrating the relevance of Tuvalu when discussing climate change.
Tuvalu, like the Maldives, Philippines and many other are already facing the effects of global warming. It is no longer something which is coming, it is already here. And although COP21 wants to prove that the issue is being taken seriously by governments, what has been put on the table so far has not been ambitious enough. Even Ban Ki Moon called for a lower threshold than negotiated, explaining that “even a 2-degree rise will have serious consequences for food and water security, economic stability and international peace … The world’s Small Island Developing States have even less room to manoeuvre, and are desperately asking the world to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.” Sacrifices will need to be made, but they need to be made now before it is really too late.
Sovereignty recognition against attention
Tuvalu, like most Pacific islands, is extremely isolated and dependents almost exclusively on imports and international generosity and support. However, an interesting fact somewhat put Tuvalu, along with Vanuatu and Kiribati, back on the map in 2011 – this time, for other reasons that climate related issues.
Three years after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 during which the pro-Russian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia seceded, the government of Tuvalu formally recognized the independence of the two newly created political entities. Their independence is not, however, recognized by the international community in the name of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Many questions were raised following what seemed to be quite a random diplomatic act on the part of Tuvalu. What did they get out of recognizing two separatist regions located on the other side of the planet and with which they had nothing in common? Although there is no clear answer, the fact that Russia and the archipelago established diplomatic relations a few weeks after the recognition cannot be a coincidence – it seems extremely odd that Russia and Tuvalu would hold private meetings to discuss bilateral cooperation, including trade, fishing and education when the two nations had never been in contact before.
Tuvalu is also one of the few countries to recognize Taiwan today. This has, however, pushed Taiwan to say that it “wants to help Tuvalu deal with the effects of rising sea levels”.
So, what can we deduct from those two cases? It is possible to assume that, by recognizing states in search of international recognition, Tuvalu actually attracts media attention which can come in helpful to raise awareness about the archipelago’s struggles – a money-against-recognition type of deal is probably the most probable option. It may also push those who do not wish for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Taiwan to be recognized as independent states to raise their bids and offer Tuvalu support in an effort to buy their allegiance. As an illustration, Tuvalu finally retracted its recognition of the two secessionist regions last March when the Pacific nation agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Georgia. It seems like changing side is never a problem. This strategy has proven relatively effective, but Tuvalu’s best bet today is still on demonstrating that global warming is no longer a myth.