Global Policy Forum

The Canary is Drowning: Tiny Tuvalu


By Tom Price

December 3, 2002

Most news on global warming is datelined from places like Washington DC, London, and Tokyo, but if you want to see the frontlines in the battle against climate change, head 400 miles north from Fiji and land on the eroding beaches of Tuvalu. This tiny atoll, just one generation removed from British colonialism, faces the very real likelihood that the rising tide of global climate change will render it uninhabitable before the next generation is grown.

"When you talk about climate change in the Pacific, people often talk about natural disasters, like cyclones and droughts, but for countries like Tuvalu the reality is sea level rise," explains Angenette Heffernan with Greenpeace Pacific. "The countries of the Pacific are the canaries in the coal mine," and in Tuvalu at least, the canaries are drowning.

Time Running Out for Idyllic Island

Tuvalu's capital atoll of Funafuti, home to half the country's 10,000 citizens, is a sliver of land just 400 meters across at its widest, the crest of a long dormant volcano edging above the waves. Life is quiet here; children play unescorted, there is plenty of fish and fruit, and it's rare to encounter a locked door or long face.

But there's been trouble brewing in this paradise for some time. Beginning in 1992, the government started speaking out in international forums about the then controversial topic of global warming. "As far as the government is concerned, the issue is no longer whether climate change will occur or not, the issue now is the rate at which the effects will be felt," explains Paani Laupepa, a former bank officer who is now Assistant Minister for the Environment and the national point person on climate change.

The world has been slow to pay attention, partly due to Tuvalu's relative distance and size, and also because the changes aren't dramatic, at least not yet. "You won't see climate change happening straight away, it's very insidious, and it's a slow process," explains Heffernan. Still, within a few days of landing on the main island of Funafuti, the anecdotal evidence begins lapping at your ankles.

Few pay more attention to the sea than Tito Tapungao, Chief Executive Officer of Tuvalu's highly regarded Maritime Training Institute. "I can see the erosion from both sides, it's quite prominent," he notes, referring to the ocean and lagoon surrounding his white coral island dotted with palms and pandanas trees. He maintains that the culpable parties aren't admitting their role. "I think the US is fully aware, but they turn a blind eye because they don't want to know."

"I can only tell you my own observations," adds Elia Tauita, President of the Funafuti Town Council, "there is certainly a noticeable erosion effect. If you go to Funafala [a nearby islet] you will see. The biggest thatched building was in the center of the village, now it's on the edge; there's been 50 yards of erosion."

Surprisingly, it's storm surges rather than erosion or average tidal height that are the greatest concern. "Now during high tides, the water comes right across the ground, where the houses are, and it never happened before, and a couple years ago it began," says Tauita. Last August the island flooded again, and increased salinity is forcing families to grow their root crops in metal buckets instead of in the ground. Few have a longer memory than Hosea Kaitu, whose bright eyes belie his 79 years. "The tide is getting higher and higher each year," he says firmly. "It's gone up almost a fathom, six feet, inland."

It's also getting warmer. On a trip to the Funafuti Conservation Area, a conservation officer points to faded coral-rising sea temperatures associated with El Nino in 1998 bleached corals around the world, from here to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.

Erosion is also having an effect. During one windy night last July, a gust of wind dropped a thick pandanas tree into the ocean between Assistant Environment Minister Laupepa's office and the island's hotel, almost flattening a tiny water desalination shack. Sunrise revealed erosion on the lagoon side had exposed the roots, leaving it ready to topple. Now where a proud 40-foot tree once stood, a gaping hole is ripped in the ground, dripping soil into the waves.

It's also happening on a much more dramatic scale across the lagoon. In 1997 Hurricane Keli blew through, taking the entire island of Tepuka Vilivili out to sea, leaving nothing but a bare stump of jagged coral. With an average height just six feet above the water line, Tuvalu can ill afford more of the same.

Faith in Rainbows, Not Relocation

In spite of the evidence, many here don't believe they will be forced to leave, and point to their bibles for proof. In this deeply Christian country, great faith gets placed in the words of Genesis, which says that rainbows -- an almost daily occurrence -- are proof God is keeping his covenant made with Noah to never again flood the earth.

Laupepa and others are convinced it's man who is breaking the covenant, not God, and even though they're a small nation, they've quickly learned. "We came to realize that this issue, climate change, is a global issue, and the only way we can be effective on this issue is to take it up at the United Nations. And even with the fact that climate change is like AIDS, there is no known cure, we have to take preemptive action to try and deal with the issue now, rather than running away from it."

Then there are the doubters on the other side, who question either Tuvalu's motives, or conclusions, or remedies. For example, Ned Leonard, Executive Director of the electrical-utility sponsored Greening Earth Society, says the "sinking" is home grown, due to pumping out ground water or using sand for construction, and that global warming isn't caused by human activities.

"No one is about to deny that atmospheric change is taking place, but the human contribution to that is miniscule compared to the natural contributions. It seems a stretch to lay it at the door of human contribution," says Leonard.

Then there's the issue of reparations, which one US magazine suggested is Tuvalu's motivation for raising the issue. The magazine speculates that once island leaders received more international aid, they would quiet down. "They've been making a case in international assemblies seeking assistance, demanding financial repartitions form the industrialized world," says Leonard, adding, "How much expense is the industrialized world willing to spare for at best a speculative problem?"

Laupepa bristles at the suggestion, noting that at several recent international forums broad hints have been floated that unless they back off from raising the issue of climate change, Tuvalu's largest aid donor, Australia, could find other places to spend their millions currently flowing into Tuvalu. Laupepa understands the risk, but feels they have no choice.

"I don't think Tuvalu will back down on this issue, there is so much at stake, if we back down we would be selling our souls for money. We are doing this is because of the future of our nation and our culture."

Pointing to recent reports issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Laupepa says the time for debating the reality of climate change is past, regardless of "the minority opinion of the National University in Australia and others who are on the payroll of oil companies," referring to Australia government.

For their part, Australian Prime Minister John Howard administration has hedged their bets, scoffing at rising seas while arguing that even if the link between emissions and sea level change is proven, it's still easier to relocate islanders from the Pacific than it is to cut emissions.

"That goes to the heart of how selfish and arrogant some of these countries are," says Heffernan, "Moving groups of people from one group of islands to another is bound to create problems."

The Power of Wind, Sun, and International Law

Meanwhile, Tuvaluans aren't interested in leaving, and are instead working on finding alternatives to the crisis.

Beginning this winter, with the help of Norwegian consultants, Tuvalu will launch a renewable energy program using the few things they have plenty of: wind, sun, and seas. "We want to put our money where our mouth is -- when we say renewable energy, climate change, we're serious about it, and we want to demonstrate our seriousness by removing diesel completely," says Laupepa.

They think global energy producers should follow suit. "Some companies are claiming their end product is cleaner than the other type, and they say they are adopting environmental standards, like BP for instance, calling themselves now Beyond Petroleum. But instead of channeling money into fossil fuel development, they should be channeling that to the mainstreaming and commercialization of renewables."

Of course, as Laupepa points out, what BP is talking about in it's "Beyond Petroleum" campaign is producing more natural gas, which emits slightly less carbon dioxide than oil, but is at best an incremental improvement for the world's climate. And of course it does nothing to move nations away from their dependence on fossil fuels. And while BP claims to be the world's number one producer of solar energy, solar is a tiny fraction of its investment, when compared to oil and gas.

So Tuvaluans aren't counting on corporations to save the world's climate. The island nation is planning some ground breaking legal action, preparing to sue the United States and Australia in the International Court of Justice for their contributions to global warming, as well as going after US companies in domestic courts. The scope of such legal action is unprecedented. At least one international legal expert thinks they might just succeed.

"Whereas a year ago I would have said 'I think it's difficult for Tuvalu to win'," such a case, says Donald Goldberg, Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, "Quite a bit of has changed in the last year, and the prospects for winning this kind of lawsuits have substantively improved. If we're looking at the broad problem, in some respects the US has already lost the case; by its own words it admits greenhouse gases are causing climate change."

The challenge of suing companies like BP, Chevron or Exxon/Mobil is also daunting, albeit for a different reason. "The science is clear enough and strong enough to establish that greenhouse gases cause the problem, and it's clear that companies like Exxon are emitting greenhouse gases, so they're culpable," says Goldberg. The question will be "how the court is going to deal with the fact that there are multiple defendants," and go about apportioning liability.

Referring to the growing evidence, Goldberg adds, "I think eventually Tuvalu is going to have a pretty unassailable case." The question is, of course, will they still be around to file it?

Going Down Swinging

The widely unspoken truth here is that in spite of the renewable energy and the lawsuits, many climate change models say it's too late for Tuvalu and a dozen other low-lying nations. Even if all emissions stopped today there's too much momentum in the global system to stop rising ocean levels from rendering low-lying countries uninhabitable. In the end, leaving for higher ground may be the only choice, creating an entire nation of environmental refugees.

Laupepa's critical banker's mind can run the numbers, and he isn't naive; he knows what his country is up against as it tries to convince industrialized nations to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. "The oil industry is powerful; it works in sinister ways to maintain its grip on the politicians. Explain to me how we can get to Bush, so we don't have to go through his band of oil-tainted advisors on his Cabinet?"

Still, he maintains optimism in the face of bleak facts. "I'm hoping we don't leave this place. We don't want to leave, it's our land, our God given land, it is our culture, we can't leave. People won't leave until the very last minute," he says, his voice trailing off into silence.

He adds that whatever challenge his people may face, he's confident they will be able to meet it head on.

"I think it is only when people are pressed against the wall that you bring out the best in them, and Tuvaluans and other people are being pressed against the wall, right up against the wall." Perhaps reflecting on what his nation's story might do regardless of the outcome, he adds, "I'm sure something good will come out of this."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.