Stop my nation

Saufatu Sopoanga
describes how Tuvalu is increasingly threatened by the rising seas caused by global warming, and calls for urgent international action

Tuvalu began to voice its concern internationally over climate change in the late 1980s. Our key concern then, and now, is sea-level rise, which has the potential to submerge the islands we call home. Successive elected governments in Tuvalu have amplified warnings of this threat.

More than 30 years ago, scientists first hinted at the possibility that manmade emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were raising the Earth’s atmospheric temperature, causing glaciers and polar ice to melt, and sea levels to rise. Since then an impressive canon of scientific research has been published.

Thirty years later, is the sea rising? We think it is, and this view is supported by a broad scientific consensus. Estimates of sea-level rise in the southwest Pacific range between 1 and 2 millimetres per year, confirming what we fear most. This is what the science tells us and anecdotal evidence here in Tuvalu – just south of the equator, and west of the international dateline – suggests the same.

What we see in Tuvalu is marginally higher (peak) sea levels when tides are highest. This means annual high tides are creeping further and further ashore. There is crop damage from previously unseen levels of saltwater intrusion. There is a higher incidence of wave washover during storms or periods of strong tidal activity.

Some commentators, journalists and scientists alike, have attributed these phenomena to construction too close to fragile lagoon foreshores or ocean fronts, or to the loss of natural coastal protection (allegedly from cutting down too many shoreline trees, shoreline mining and so forth). Whether or not this picture is accurate, this line of reasoning confuses the issue of recent material gains – principally the present level of development in Tuvalu – with sea-level rise. If the sea is rising, as local evidence suggests and scientists suspect, no amount of natural or manmade coastal protection that is not prohibitively expensive will fend it off. So-called ‘adaptation’ measures are a short-term fix, which, however beneficial, merely delay the inevitable. Unless, of course, the worldwide volume of greenhouse gas production is cut drastically, and cut fast.

Tuvalu’s nine small atolls and reef islands are geographically flat, rising no more than 4 metres above sea level. At any time, we are naturally concerned with the state of the sea, just as a desert nomad is with the health of an oasis. We have no continental interior where we can relocate; no high interior, as found on a volcanic island. We cannot move away from our coastlines. All the land we inhabit is a coastline, right where the threat of rising sea levels is greatest.

Confronting issues
Successive elected governments in Tuvalu have adopted the concept of sustainable development, and we confront its issues almost daily. But however much we try to put this concept into action locally, we also know it will not solve the problem of rising sea levels, if in fact the sea is rising. What can we do?

As much as we try to meet the expectations of the international community, which demands that we mix sustainable development into national policy, our efforts on the ground have been mostly unsuccessful. (Other developing countries around the world share the same experience.) Why? For one, a shortage of labour and capital. Two, Tuvalu is a least developed country.

In the context of climate change, it has become obvious to us that sustainable development – which can offer solutions to many of the issues we confront as a nation still in the early stages of growth – is clearly not a defence against sea-level rise, no matter how hard the international debate tries to connect the two. As the former chairman of the Association of Small Island States, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, recently said: ‘It may be that we manage to get our sustainable development polices right. Yet we will still face the risk that all will be undermined by climate change.’ This reality is an undeniably accurate view of the situation we face in the Pacific. Manmade climate change is not a Pacific invention, nor are rising sea levels our problem to fix. There is only this: Tuvalu and other Pacific island countries will be among the first to suffer the catastrophic consequences of sea-level rise.

The only international mechanism to combat climate change is the Kyoto Protocol. In the absence of potentially better alternatives – if and when they might ever appear – we appeal to the international community: support the provisions set out in Kyoto without reservation, and achieve its stated greenhouse gas emission targets. But that’s not all. What we fear is that whether or not countries ratify Kyoto, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow, unless there is drastic change – for example, in how industrial countries, by far the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, use energy. Yet, fossil fuel consumption continues to grow.

Not enough
Policy measures and non-technology fixes are important tools in the battle to lower greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Examples of these measures include energy conservation, the creation of vast new carbon sinks and emissions trading. But these efforts will not stop the sea from rising unless there is widespread replacement of existing energy technology that uses carbon-based fuel to power the steam turbine and internal combustion engine. Sadly, this prospect seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

As far back as independence in 1978, Tuvalu has consistently advocated the use of renewable energy. We have had some success with solar power, using a technology (solar photovoltaic) that is obviously compatible with sustainable development. But Tuvalu still relies predominantly on imported petroleum to meet its energy needs. To curtail this dependence in any meaningful way will require public or private investment from the international community to finance a large-scale shift to solar energy. Otherwise, Tuvalu – and most other countries in a similar situation – will fall well short of expectations in relation to sustainable development, and of the expectations of climate change-related public policy.
Manmade climate change is not a Pacific invention, nor are rising sea levels our problem to fix
From where we stand, this type of large-scale renewable investment and commitment has not been forthcoming, from public or private sources. But, make no mistake, Tuvalu stands ready to enter into partnership with any industrial country or manufacturer of solar energy equipment to transform its energy sector – and to play our part, however small, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot do it alone. The concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is growing. Scientific research and debate have informed the majority of international public opinion. Scientists sounded the alarm on climate change and atmospheric warming years ago. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – in thousands of pages of research documentation – has explained in detail the threat posed by manmade atmospheric warming.

Paying the price
Its effects are being felt not just in Tuvalu but everywhere. Why powerful decision makers in countries who can make a difference continue to downplay the threat posed by global warming is beyond our understanding. Isn’t mankind’s future at risk? The biggest emitters of manmade greenhouse gases are the world’s largest countries, in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia – which comes as no surprise. Two countries, which are also the world’s two most populous, China and India, also represent the world’s biggest future greenhouse gas emissions threat. By comparison, Tuvalu’s greenhouse gas emissions are next to zero.

It is likely that in the next 50-100 years, if not sooner, the nine islands of Tuvalu will at best become uninhabitable, or at worst vanish. This is based not on speculation, but on mounting scientific evidence. The outlook is grim, but what can Tuvalu do? As one of my predecessors wrote, ‘Tuvalu’s voice in the climate change debate is small, rarely heard, and heeded not at all. Industrial countries, with all their wealth, may fret, but if atmospheric temperatures [continue to] rise, even by a few degrees, the price will be paid by the islands of Tuvalu and all low-lying land just like it’

The Hon. Saufatu Sopoanga, OBE is Prime Minister of Tuvalu.

PHOTOGRAPH: Mark Lynas/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate change, 1997
Issue on Climate and Action, 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Energy, 2001
Issue on Energy, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: