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  July/August 2003 Issue
  FEATURES: Global Warming
The Melting Point
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Global Warming

High Tide in Tuvalu

In the tropical Pacific, climate change threatens to create a real-life Atlantis.

by Tom Price

To explain global warming in stark detail, all Tito Tapungao has to do is show a visitor around the grounds of his school. Dressed in his sailor’s pressed whites, the chief executive officer of the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute points out a small brick cabin built by missionaries in 1903. Now, a century later, annual high tides rise halfway up the bedposts. Last year, those same tides washed away a massive stone-and-steel breakwater just months after Tapungao’s students built it.

Soon the entire nation of Tuvalu, a chain of nine coral islands totaling just ten square miles, may suffer a similar fate. If the best guesses of scientists hold true, this diminutive country 400 miles north of Fiji will become a casualty of climate change. Last year was the second-warmest on record, according to the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization. And an exhaustive report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates that temperatures will climb 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end, raising sea levels as much as 2.8 feet as warmer water expands and glacial ice continues to melt.

That may not sound like a lot, but with Tuvalu’s average elevation only a half dozen feet above sea level, and its capital atoll of Funafuti already a sliver of land–400 yards at its widest and tapering in places to scarcely 10 yards–it won’t take much to wreak havoc. (Other low-lying nations in the same neighborhood, including Kiribati, Niue, and the Marshall Islands, are in similar straits.) Of greater immediate concern, the changing climate is also bringing higher tides and fiercer, more frequent storms that are already eroding burial grounds and washing out crops. Within the lifetime of some of today’s residents, these surges will likely turn Tuvalu into an uninhabitable collection of rocks.

Environmental disasters have already forced some 25 million people from their homes worldwide, but this would be the first time an entire nation was left homeless. "I feel sad and angry at the same time," says Paani Laupepa, Tuvalu’s assistant secretary for the environment. "Sad that eventually we will have to move, and angry because this is not of our own doing, but because of the doings of others who don’t care, who are looking after their own needs and not at the bigger picture."

To emphasize his point, Laupepa recounts a recent planning meeting for adopting the Kyoto climate-change protocol. "The head of the Saudi delegation stood up and said, ‘If we ratify Kyoto, and industrial countries cut back their emissions, it means they will buy less oil, which translates into $400 billion lost for us.’ It’s crazy–they’re thinking about their status as leaders, we are thinking about our very existence!"

That existence, threats or no, still can seem idyllic. Tuvalu is mostly shorefront, rich with coconut trees and empty white-sand beaches. With half the national population of 11,000, Funafuti is relatively dense–and improbably awash in SUVs on its recently paved and electrically lit streets–but nights here are still slow and quiet. The silence is occasionally broken by lilting, rolling voices practicing for fatele, the catchall name for dancing and singing competitions that break out at the least excuse. Each evening, dozens of families meet to swim, bathe, and gossip in the bathtub-warm water along the lagoon’s arc. On the hottest nights, people leave their crowded houses and spread out thick woven mats to sleep on the broad airport runway. It’s the largest open space on the island, and dawn can find over a hundred souls resting under the sky.

The tarmac doesn’t see much other use. Not counting journalists and aid workers, Tuvalu gets just a few dozen visitors per year, and has only one true tourist destination: the Funafuti Conservation Area. Established in 1995, it set six islets off-limits to any fishing, in hopes of preserving stocks. Divers, however, are welcome, and those who venture this far will likely be rewarded with a glimpse of angel and butterfly fishes darting around the coral, the menacing profile of a blacktip shark, or a rare green turtle retreating into the shadows. But Conservation Officer Semese Alefaio–host, skipper, diver, and chief of anything else that needs doing here–sees trouble in paradise.

Since 1998, Alefaio has noticed coral bleaching, often a sign of warming waters. Local fishermen report spotting species like the milkfish, which is rarely found near such small islands. Other signs of the changing climate are less subtle. Alefaio points out the ragged scar of what used to be the sixth islet in the conservation area: Tepuka Savilivili. "Keli," one of several cyclones that are slamming into these islands with increased frequency, blew all of the islet’s vegetation out to sea in 1997. Stripped of its coconut and pandanus trees, soil, and sand, today it’s merely a navigational hazard.

The rest of Tuvalu won’t disappear all at once, and so its people live with global warming much the same way Californians deal with earthquakes: They plan, they make accommodations, and then they go on with their lives. After months of uncommon drought, the rains have brought a burst of frangipani blooms that flood the air with sweetness and now decorate the hair of fatele choirs. Meanwhile an all-nation soccer tournament is under way. Open grass is so scarce the field drapes over the road and runway a bit, and loose balls sometimes end up in the ocean, but the friendly competition is still vigorous, albeit with an island twist: Players never steal the ball so aggressively that their opponent goes down. Falling on the coral under the scrubby grass would hurt, and anyway it’s a small place to live with someone you’ve crossed.

It’s also a hard place to convey a message of impending doom, as the Reverend Kitiona Tausi knows well. "I don’t think there is a better place," he says simply. "This is paradise. It’s very peaceful, you have food, as much as you like, and during the night you sleep with open doors and no fear. We don’t have the problems they have in other countries." At the time we spoke, just two people occupied the nation’s jails; most infractions involve motor scooters, and the few police keep their guns locked up and unloaded. A recent U.S. State Department report ranked Tuvalu highly in respect for human rights, access to education, and civil liberties.

Nonetheless, Tausi is concerned about the dangers facing Tuvalu that are not so easily seen. And as general secretary of the Tuvaluan Christian Church, to which 97 percent of residents claim adherence, he is taking a stand on global warming. (So are U.S. clergy: The Evangelical Environmental Network preaches that "pollution that causes the threat of global warming violates the Great Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the biblical call to care for ‘the least of these.’") Tausi leads workshops in concert with Laupepa’s office to help locals understand how climate change might affect them. "We are stewards of God’s creation, but we have not been faithful to him," Tausi says. "The industrialized nations, they have been too greedy, consuming what should be left for our future generations and forgetful of those who fall victim to their activities. We have disobeyed God, we have not cared for the earth."

In response to such messages, Tuvaluans vacillate between calm and concern. "I read in my little Bible, there’s a promise God made that there will be no more flood," says Hosea Kaitu, a former sailor and, at 79, one of the country’s oldest residents. "I believe in my Bible, but I see the tide getting higher and higher each year, so I also believe what the scientists predict–we must get prepared, get some higher ground to live on."

That ground will have to be somewhere else. While optimistically talking about long-term plans to convert the entire nation to renewable energy, get rid of those polluting SUVs, and become an ecotourism destination, Laupepa acknowledges they’re looking into the idea of buying another island. Meanwhile, 75 Tuvaluans are being relocated to New Zealand each year.

But they won’t be going without a fight. Tuvalu is considering plans to sue the United States and Australia (the single-largest and largest per-capita emitters, respectively, of greenhouse gases) in the International Court of Justice in The Hague for their failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The proposed argument–that the two nations’ emissions form an unfair restraint of trade, since they are in effect putting the country of Tuvalu out of business–would set a new precedent in international law. For good measure, Tuvalu would follow up by suing large American polluters like ExxonMobil in U.S. courts.

"This sort of action is an emerging field, but it’s a good time to be trying creative solutions for a problem like climate change," says David Hunter, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C. Still, he acknowledges, since the United States has questioned the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice over domestic matters, it would not necessarily consider an eventual ruling binding. That hasn’t stopped other countries from suing the United States over its death-penalty laws and other disputes. "It’s going to take a country that has a lot at stake to press the issue," Hunter says. "And Tuvalu doesn’t have a lot of other ways of getting itself noticed."

The legal action would not be easy–or cheap–for a country with an annual gross domestic product of only $12.2 million. (In 2000, Tuvalu leased its Internet domain name ".tv" for a promised $50 million in royalties, but the dot-com money has been slow to materialize.) And residents are not united behind the idea, perhaps in part because the aggressive strategy also runs counter to the Tuvaluan way of getting along with your neighbor.

Traditionally, disputes are settled through long discussions in the Kaupule, or community council, which functions along with modern courts. To vote for a representative to the (all-male) meeting requires reaching "family" status, explains current island pule, or council president, Siasi Finiki. Some 50 extended families have the requisite pair of pulaka, or taro, pits, and 200 coconut trees to qualify. Carefully tended over many years and harvested after a decade, the bulbous pulaka roots are an important status symbol. Yet even this age-old social arbiter is feeling the effects of the rising ocean. "There is a change now in the sea," says Finiki, who worries for his children and grandchildren. Gesturing to his beloved pulaka pits, he notes, "It is not growing too well now, some salt water is getting inside."

Noticing subtle changes like these requires a long perspective, something sorely lacking when Australia declared, after nine years of monitoring, that no increase in sea level could be found on Tuvalu. Such a claim contradicted longer-term records from the region that indicate an average rise of 1 to 1.7 centimeters per decade over the 20th century. Regardless, it’s the extreme "king" tides of February and March that will likely do the most damage, pushing life here beyond the tipping point. Always the highest of the year, some six years ago the king tides went to a new level, bubbling up through the ground to inundate broad swaths of land. Last August they appeared again, flooding the islands without warning.

However it’s measured, change is coming to these islands–to their climate, and their culture. Like most Tuvaluans, Finiki now plants his pulaka in waterproof tin cans. "I fear for the young people," Finiki says. "The West is too strong." Still, it’s tools from the West–education, media attention, and litigation–that may offer his people their only chance of survival, on Tuvalu or elsewhere.

Brightening, Finiki talks about the new house he’s building down the road for his extended family. Like all new construction in Tuvalu these days, it’s going up on stilts.


Tom Price, a freelance environmental journalist, lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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