Penny Lotoala’s childhood on Tuvalu seemed from the pages of travel brochures: turquoise water lapping against white sand beaches, the sun painting her tiny island nation in vibrant hues of orange and pink before dipping behind the ocean horizon. When she and her friends weren’t playing house or pretending to farm and cook like their parents did, they busied themselves with games of hide-and-seek, often finding cover in the dense foliage of towering fetau trees that lined the beach.
Each week, Ms. Lotoala and her father would travel by boat from their atoll of Nukulaelae, home to just a few hundred people, to one of Tuvalu’s other small islands to collect cuttings from taro and pulaka plants, propagating the root vegetables back at home.
Since moving away for school in her mid-teens and eventually settling elsewhere on Tuvalu, Ms. Lotoala, now 67, has returned to Nukulaelae every few years, finding herself increasingly alarmed by how it has transformed.
Driven by the effects of climate change, the white sand beach that was once her backyard has disappeared, lost to coastal erosion. Some fetau trees have been swallowed by the sea, while others that remain now lean precariously, with roots exposed. Saltwater intrusion has destroyed many of the swampy pits used to cultivate pulaka.
“The land has been taken – lost,” Ms. Lotoala said in an interview on Funafuti, Tuvalu’s main atoll and capital, where she now lives. “When I went back three years ago, I don’t see that big tree anymore. I feel unsafe, because those big trees are gone forever.”
Tuvalu is composed of nine reef islands and atolls, and is located midway between Australia and Hawaii. The archipelago totals only 26 square kilometres of land – together hardly a fleck on most maps – making it the world’s fourth smallest country, behind Vatican City, Monaco and Nauru. About 11,000 people call it home.
The nation’s extreme vulnerability to severe weather events and variability has made it a potent symbol for the acute threat of climate change. Tropical cyclones have displaced up to half the population at a time, persistent droughts have drained the island of fresh water and spread waterborne disease, and sea level rise threatens not only Tuvalu’s physical coastline but its coastal ecosystems. Government officials have issued dire warnings that Tuvalu could be completely submerged in the next 50 to 100 years.
The risk is such that the government of Tuvalu is taking the extraordinary step of creating a “digital nation” in an effort to preserve its statehood should the country become uninhabitable. As part of the Future Now project – a set of initiatives aimed at safeguarding the country from the most severe impacts of sea level rise and climate change – a virtual replica of Tuvalu in the metaverse will immortalize its islands, landmarks and culture for future generations should they one day be lost.
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“This represents the government’s plan for a worst-case scenario,” said Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s Minister for Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, in an interview. “If we do get to that stage where we are forced to relocate, then we have a plan in place to future-proof Tuvalu.”
The move is a testament to Mr. Kofe’s media savvy; by announcing the attention-grabbing project on the heels of a provocative video statement he delivered to the 2021 Conference of the Parties global climate summit, or COP26, the minister has drawn continued international attention to the microstate’s plight.
In March, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued the final part of its sixth assessment report, a synthesis of thousands of scientific papers that was eight years in the making. It concluded that an enormous, global effort is needed this decade to avoid the most serious consequences of a dramatically warmer world.
Without “deep, rapid and sustained” greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the world is on pace to exceed 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the target agreed to under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, by the early 2030s, the report said. Every additional fraction of warming would result in rapidly escalating hazards.
Lower emissions scenarios would mean slower rates of sea-level rise, granting low-lying cities and small islands such as Tuvalu more climate adaptation options, the report said. Small island developing states are particularly hard hit by sea level rise despite emitting less than 1 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
At a news conference for the report’s release on March 20, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said one of the report’s essential conclusions is that there should be more focus on fairness.
“Those who have contributed the least to climate change are often the most vulnerable to its impacts,” he said.
The airstrip at Tuvalu’s only commercial airport is 5,000 feet long, a wide ribbon of asphalt that dominates Funafuti’s narrow Fongafale islet. On one side is a long row of family-owned pigsties – concrete and corrugated steel structures holding the many pigs that are key components of ceremonies, feasts and traditional dishes – and on the other is a modest business district with a bank, telecom centre and convenience store, each little more than a small room staffed by one or two people.
With economic development constraints and limited natural resources, one of Tuvalu’s most reliable income generators is the lease and marketing of its coveted Internet domain extension .tv, thanks to the popularity of streaming platforms such as Twitch.tv. Under a previous deal with domain name provider Verisign, Tuvalu received US $5-million per year, or roughly 10 per cent of its gross national income; a new agreement with GoDaddy, signed December, 2021, was expected to bring in much more, however the government has not disclosed the amount.
Flights land in Funafuti three times a week, preceded by sirens that warn some locals to clear the unfenced landing strip and beckon others to the covered outdoor waiting area to wave at incoming travellers. Most onboard are usually locals or workers; Tuvalu is one of the least-visited countries in the world, with tourists peaking at just 3,700 in 2019 and averaging less than 1,500 per year dating back to 1995.
On non-flight days and in the evenings, the airstrip becomes a social hub, with picnicking families and people zigzagging along on motorbikes and playing soccer or te ano, a team sport that involves keeping two balls off the ground and is somewhat similar to volleyball. During exceptionally high tides, water not only rushes in from the coast but surges up through the porous, coral island bottom, flooding sections of the airstrip and the surrounding land.
The U.S. Navy built the airstrip during the Second World War, seeing Tuvalu – then the British-ruled Ellice Islands – as an important strategic location in its fight against Japanese forces. Off the northern tip of Fongafale, where the islet narrows to a point and disappears into the ocean, the concrete base of an anti-aircraft gun remains. Once on land, it’s now several metres offshore.
It is here that Mr. Kofe shot a video statement that drew international attention to Tuvalu’s plight. Asked to deliver remarks for an event on climate mobility at COP26, the minister brought a local film crew to this location, intending to film his video statement standing on the beach in front of the gun base.
“I hadn’t been there for like two years, and when I returned, the sand bank that used to be there was washed away,” he said. “We eventually said, ‘Well, why don’t we move to the water and actually stand in the water?’”
The video begins tightly framed on Mr. Kofe’s face as he stands at a podium, clad in a suit and tie, in front of a blue backdrop, flanked by the flags of Tuvalu and the United Nations. As he speaks of Tuvaluans living the reality of sea level rise, the camera zooms out, revealing that he is standing thigh-deep in water. The video immediately went viral.
Mr. Kofe is now garnering further global attention as the lead of the Future Now project, which aims to “future-proof” the country in the event of the worst-case scenario. It’s an idea that the minister has contemplated for a decade, having written his master’s thesis in 2013 on the legal implications of climate change on Tuvalu.
Under the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, a nation must meet the criteria of having a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to conduct international relations. By this definition, a loss of land would threaten Tuvalu’s statehood.
As part of the Future Now project, Tuvalu will create a “digital nation,” complete with a government administrative system to ensure that it can continue functioning as a sovereign nation should mass migration become necessary.
It also plans to catalogue as much of the country as possible, digitizing historical documents and family albums, creating recordings of cultural practices and traditional songs, and preserving other important media. Foreign policy will include the provision that Tuvalu only form new bilateral relations with nations that recognize its statehood and existing maritime boundaries as permanent.
To allow current and future generations to interface with the land, the government has enlisted the information technology and consulting company Accenture to create a digital twin of the country in the metaverse, a term used to describe a virtual world where users can interact with each other and digital objects in a shared, immersive setting. The realism of the digital Tuvalu would be comparable to Google Earth’s street view, but built from even better, movie-quality images.
Mr. Kofe said his thinking behind the Future Now project is to focus, in the face of a daunting global crisis, on that which is possible.
“I’ve always had this philosophy: Do not invest too much of your energy and your heart into things that you are not in control of,” he said.
The minister announced the project at COP27 last November, this time in a video statement from the digital twin of Te Afualiku, an islet of Funafuti that is the first to be digitized, and is expected to be the first to be submerged. Accenture built the model in just six weeks, using high-resolution images, drone footage and specialized software popular in video game development for its ability to produce fluid simulations with realistic details and lighting.
“As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation,” the minister says in the video as parts of the digital backdrop behind him glitch, disappearing and reappearing.
“It is not just Tuvalu that’s affected, but the world is facing extreme weather events and shocking temperatures. Without a global conscience and a global commitment to our shared wellbeing, we may soon find the rest of the world joining us online as their lands disappear.”
A government website hosting the video promotes “the first digital nation” and invites visitors to write their environment ministers demanding climate action – to “save the real Tuvalu.”
Tuvalu’s fate is not inevitable. In 2018, researchers from the University of Auckland published a study showing that Tuvalu’s land area actually increased by 73.5 hectares (2.9 per cent) in the four decades from 1971 to 2014 as a result of coral reef erosion and sediment movement, challenging the narrative that the island nation would simply be swallowed by the rising sea. While smaller islands have shrunk, with one eroding entirely, the majority grew in size, the researchers found. This shows the resiliency of reef islands and provides an empirical basis to explore new ways for atoll nations to adapt to challenges, with continued habitation underpinning these approaches, they wrote.
However, the study noted that sea level rise was commensurate with a low-emissions scenario and said it was unclear whether islands would continue to maintain their size under higher-emissions scenarios. As well, critics of the study, including former Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, said it failed to take into account the many other existential threats of sea level rise, including the impact of salt water intrusion on local food production.
While Tuvalu’s digital twin is being built, efforts are ongoing to protect the real country from the impacts of climate change. The Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project, for which construction began last October, is expected to add more than seven hectares of new land to Funafuti, using sand and limestone dredged from the lagoon. It will augment 1.6 hectares added in 2016, on which a new convention centre and other structures have since been built. A news release about the project says the new land, which is expected to sit 2.4 metres above the highest tide, will be “the only longer-term flood-free land on the island given accelerated rates of sea level rise.”
As well, barriers will be installed on stretches of the coastline on Nanumanga and Nanumea, north of Funafuti, to protect from storm waves. The global Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, is providing US$36-million for the project, while the government of Tuvalu will fund US$2.9-million. That project is expected to be completed in May, 2024.
Maina Talia, a climate action advocate and former director of the Tuvalu Association of NGOs, said while such land reclamation projects are needed, the international community must do more than throw money at the problem.
“The moral strand of the issue is missing,” he said. “It’s not about compensation. Climate change is not just about securing money for low-lying atolls. It’s an ethical issue, it’s a moral obligation. We need to keep governments and industrialized countries accountable for the emissions that they release.”
Mr. Talia was born and raised on Vaitupu, Tuvalu’s largest atoll. He’s seen high tides send surges of water onto the land, devastating taro and pulaka plantations. Schools of fish that used to swim near the shore have now moved to cooler, deeper waters, forcing fishermen to spend more time on the water, and more money on fuel, to earn their livelihoods. He says the growing pressure has eroded the Tuvaluan ethos of communalism, the days of sharing harvests fading away.
He is wary of those who “romanticize” the fight against climate change, obscuring the unfolding disaster with buzzwords and catchy campaigns. Asked about the Future Now project, Mr. Talia said it is important to preserve records, but was skeptical of the idea of a digital Tuvalu.
“If we cannot save the country, it’s meaningless to be in the debate,” he said. “We should not send a signal to the international community that it’s okay if Tuvalu drowns, if Tuvalu submerges, because they can always go to New Zealand or Australia … I’m not sure how it’s possible to go into another country and practice our own culture. That is impossible. Saving Tuvalu is literally saving our culture, saving our land, saving our people.”
Reports from the government of Tuvalu note high rates of internal migration – people leaving smaller islands for Funafuti – and international migration, with many Tuvaluans lured to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, primarily for economic and cultural opportunities, but also because of environmental stressors at home.
A 2015 United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security survey of nearly 7,000 Pacific Islanders found that more than 70 per cent of households in Tuvalu reported that family members would migrate if climate stressors worsened. Assuming a climate change scenario of 2 degree warming by 2100, researchers estimated that international migration trips could increase by 100 per cent by 2055.
Mr. Talia said governments must be held accountable, and derided superficial climate change campaigns that fail to capture the seriousness and urgency of the matter.
“We should stop romanticizing climate change, or making climate change a sexy issue,” he said. “It is not a sexy issue. It is a matter of life or death for the people living here in Tuvalu. We should reverse this idea of, ‘We are fighting, we’re not drowning.’ We should tell the world that we are drowning.”
Meanwhile, residents of Tuvalu are still planning for their future on their native land. On Funafuti, after three decades of operating one of the island’s few traveller’s lodges, Ms. Lotoala recently handed over the reins to her adult son and daughter-in-law, who are keen to take over and inject a younger energy into the family business. Her two adult daughters, meanwhile, have moved to New Zealand and are trying to convince their mother to join them.
“They say that there is no future in Tuvalu because of climate change,” she said. “But this is home. Home sweet home.”