Islands in the South Pacific are falling victim to the effects of climate change.
For 12 days in November, Glasgow’s COP26 provided a platform for passionate addresses, urging innovation and vigour in order to tackle the ongoing climate crisis.
Speeches from big names and world leaders attracted swathes of public attention from across the globe: David Attenborough, Barack Obama, Greta Thunberg, amongst many more.
But Tuvalu’s Minister for Justice, Communication, and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe blew world leaders out of the water by amassing nearly half a million views on a YouTube video of his address, published on the Guardian News’ channel.
When watching the video it’s clear to see why. Kofe’s video address was impactful and striking. As he speaks, the camera pans out and we see that he is not standing in a stately press room as you might expect.
Instead, he is at a podium in front of a blue screen – and up to his knees in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean.
The evocative imagery reinforces his point – Tuvalu is disastrously vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis.
“We are living the reality of sea level rises,” Tofe says in his address.
“We cannot wait for speeches when the sea is rising around us all the time. We must take bold alternatives to secure tomorrow.
“Tuvalu is sinking.”
One Twitter user shared an enthusiastic reaction this bizarre and emotive address:
THIS IS HOW TO PASS A MESSAGE!!
Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister gave a speech to the UN climate conference in Glasgow standing knee-deep in seawater to show how his Country is suffering from climate change.
Tuvalu is sinking with 40% of the nation’s capital is already below sea level pic.twitter.com/kQDNVbDoVm
— OMO LADY B ⚡⚡ (@KvngKortez_) November 19, 2021
The eyes of the world rested briefly on the world’s fourth smallest nation.
The Climate Crisis in Tuvalu
The fanfare and furore of COP26 has since faded away but Tuvalu continues to battle the climate crisis in a way that most other countries would not be able to imagine.
An string of flat Oceanic islands midway between Australia and Hawaii, Tuvalu’s combined landmass is barely 26km². Fongafale, the capital’s largest islet, is only 20 metres across at its narrowest point.
The nation’s atolls and islets, for many years, have watched the effects of climate change coming in, closer and closer, with the tide each day.
A 2019 Guardian article explored the consequences islanders are already navigating day-to-day.
Tuvalu’s fragile coral reefs, once abundant, are bleached and damaged. They are emitting micro algae which may be ingested by fish. If eaten by humans, these fish – a staple in a Pacific island diet – can cause serious illness and even hospitalisation.
Sea level rise and flooding have contaminated underground water supplies making the nation reliant entirely on rainfall, while drought is becoming more and more frequent.
Earth and soil have been damaged too, making it very difficult for locals to grow their own food and sustain themselves. Instead, they are importing basics they could once produce – bananas, taro, and breadfruit, for example – and it is increasingly expensive to do so.
The country has become poor in its own natural resources. It relies mostly on funding from the UN and other countries to operate.
What’s Next for Tuvalu?
This is just the beginning. Last week, a BBC article reported that the last seven years have been the hottest on record.
Projections indicate that sea levels will rise, the world will get hotter, storms and flooding will only get worse.
By 2100, the average rise of global sea levels is projected to be anything from 0.7 to four metres, depending on the models used.
Peaking at only three metres above sea level Tuvalu is particularly vulnerable. Even the most conservative estimates would have disastrous results for the nation’s population of nearly 11,000.
The interactive risk map below gives an idea of how sea level rises will impact Tuvalu’s capital, the atoll of Funafuti.
The sea level rise in the example below is fixed at one metre. Even this would cause the islets to be submerged and completely uninhabitable.
Source: Climate Central.
The need for action is urgent if the islands sacred to thousands of Tuvaluans are to be salvaged.
Fiji has offered land for relocating the population.
Australia has also suggested giving Tuvaluans full citizenship in exchange for the country’s fishery and maritime rights.
Australia, meanwhile, continues to be one of the world’s biggest exporters of coal.
But forced migration is not an outcome desired by anyone and calls are being made for serious action to be taken to tackle the human causes of the crisis instead.
Many Tuvaluans are determined to remain on the island until the end.
“Our islands are sacred to us,” says Simon Kofe in his COP26 address.
“They were the home of our ancestors. They are the home of our people today.
“And we want them to remain the home of our people into the future.”