Climate Change and Tuvalu

Going ashore with Doina (Jimmy Cornell’s daughter) is interesting. She has contacts here. As a child she was here in 1978 when the country became independent. The Cornells made a lasting connection with a local family. And Michael on Drina has connections as well from sailing here decades ago. These connections led to a referral to the Finance Minister. Bob and I followed Doina and her son Dan to the Finance Minister’s office, and watched and smiled and nodded and shook hands as Doina explained about Jimmy and the BPO and we are on visiting yachts sailing around the world and we want to call attention in our little ways to the plight of Tuvalu… “The Prime Minister is very focused on climate change,” he said. “Have you met with him?”

“No,” says Doina, “Could you arrange for us to do that?” Wow, she’s good at this! We come away with a tentative meeting, to be confirmed the next day.

When Bob and I take Doina ashore the next morning, we are met at the dinghy dock by a messenger. “The Prime Minister would like you to attend the workshop today.” No, the messenger doesn’t know anything about the workshop, only that he was to invite the people on the yachts.

With no idea what to expect, we go to the same pavilion where families were watching loved ones board the airplane yesterday. It is now filled with chairs. The chairs (with lettering on the back saying they were supplied by the Mormon Church) seem to be absurdly far apart…until you factor in the size of many Tuvaluans… We are told that the PM is going to sign the accord for the United Nations Conference Against Corruption.

We got to listen to speeches in Tuvaluan, peppered with English terms like “public sector” and “bribe” and “leadership and management” and “contextualize.” The PM’s speech was largely understandable from the English phrases, and I found it very interesting. The gist of it was this:

The spirit of the United Nations Conference Against Corruption is “Do the right thing. And do things the right way.” Tuvalu is doing the right thing, in the right way, and we are happy to sign the accord. However, we must also call attention to the problems facing Tuvalu. Tropical cyclones are our biggest threat. We have “development partners” who offer to help us. But these agencies are not democratized. They are controlled by powerful governments and commercial interests. The World Bank must be reformed. The Agency for International Development must be reformed. The development partners think of their efforts as charity. It is not charity for Tuvalu; it is a survival fund.

I found this rather inspiring. Here is a man willing to stand up for what he believes is right, and ask the world to stand with him.

There was a break for tea, which turned out to be a feast of interesting food, and weak hot chocolate. The Finance Minister joined us and said he would ask the PM over. And so we got to chat with the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. He asked about Jimmy, and he appreciated our concern for Tuvalu. He hoped we would help raise awareness of his country’s situation. He said his motto these days is, “Save Tuvalu, save the world.” He lamented that although there are funds pledged to help places affected by climate change, the “bureaucracy and paperwork is higher than sea level rise.”

I offered that raising awareness is the main thing we can do, and maybe we should make T-shirts with his “Save Tuvalu, save the world” motto. He liked that idea, though he quipped that the industrialized countries have scheduled the upcoming Paris climate change conference when it will be too cold for T-shirts…and when global warming will not be present in people’s experience.

I found the entire event fascinating…and it leaves me face to face with a familiar personal dilemma. One the one hand, I like this place, and I like the people I have met, and I like what I have seen of their culture. If/when sea levels rise, and cyclones hit, this country is going to be destroyed — the people will become “climate change refugees,” and their culture will almost certainly be lost along with their homes. I would be proud to take a stand with Enele Sopoanga, PM of Tuvalu, demanding that all the countries of the world “do the right thing” in limiting climate change, and minimizing the effects.

On the other hand, change happens. Forces are already in play that will impact Tuvalu and the world climate. I believe that mankind is generating some of these forces, and I believe there are “natural” (non-human) variations also at play. Is the “right thing” to try to preserve Tuvalu? Or is it to help the Tuvaluans adapt to the coming changes?

Either way, here I am trying to raise awareness. Now you know a bit about nine South Pacific atolls and reefs called Tuvalu. I would be delighted to read your comments — what you think is “the right thing” about Tuvalu, about climate change, about related policies of industrialized and developing countries, about renewable energy sources, and about what actions an individual can/should take. Or, like me, what questions you have that leave you uncertain about what to think and what to do.

10 thoughts on “Climate Change and Tuvalu”

  1. Zeke – I so appreciate hearing your ‘take’ on things. I suspect climate change, like so many other issues, is just too complicated for an easy ‘solution.’ It would be great if it was a straightforward answer, but so much in life is not. “saving Tuvalu” reminds me in some ways of what FEMA does here after major flooding along the rivers – we give people money to re-build in exactly the same place, knowing that in another 10 or 20 years, the same thing is going to happen again. There are no easy answers, but kudos to you an the guys for looking hard and trying to understand all the different aspects of the issue.

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  2. Zeke, I asked a question 2 blogs posts ago that this one answers… now I understand alot more about Tuvalu and why you went there and want to respond to your questions back. I can definately relate to the confusion on the question – what action could I take that would have a positive impact? Since we’re all facing a situation that no human has ever faced before, it’s natural I think for us to feel this way. One thought I have is that we need leadership – authentic leadership that is collaborative and invites all ideas and solutions. The authentic leader isn’t the problem-solver or in total control; they are more the inspiration for generating ideas and working together for the good of as many as possible, around shared values. I think the t-shirt idea is a good one, although just one of many that will be needed. And, in response to the PM’s comment on not wearing t-shirts out of season, lots of people can wear tshirts over light-weight long-sleeved shirts! :). Social media, although not my favorite, when worked by those who are super savvy at it, can generate a ton of awareness. A video can go viral and cover the globe in a few days – quite incredible. Maybe the government of Tuvalu can get some help to make a video sharing their situation.

    Many people have told me that we’ve already crossed the line on climate change and it will not be reversible at this point. If that is true, then a plan for where the people of this little nation can go makes sense. Is there another south pacific region, with similar lifestyle that they’re used to, that would be open to helping them? Collaborating on a plan that would be win/win seems like a good idea. In the big picture it seems like an opportunity for peoples of the Earth to come together to help one of our own – when you think of the Earth as One World and not hundreds of little separate nations. Reminds me of Black Elk’s words and also Star Trek (yes, I’m a trekkie) – the mission to explore and when asked, to help others. I may sound idealistic – I still am… only through a bigger vision of this planet as the one home to all of us, will we make it through these times of human evolution.

    ok, you asked! so there’s my thoughts 🙂 Vika

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  3. hi I usually just read things but want to say a thank you for bringing this issues up and calling attention to it. We think in our safe little corner of the world that things like this just don’t effect us but they do and the PM is right in saving Tuvalu we save the world because this tiny little country is like the canary in the mine sending out a warning we all need to hear. So thanks Zeke
    Linda A-F

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  4. So what would have to happen for this to become more “known”? It seems like the petty pace of life here dominates the news while the important changes that are coming and will affect us all are ignored or worse dismissed as alarmist. From your discussions what noise would have to happen for us to pay attention?

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  5. A real dilemma… it seems though the Tuvaluans may not welcome it, it has come to a point when helping them to adapt to another world would help them most. It would be better received if those that help them try to understand their culture and their past, which is why your presence makes a huge impact. If only there was a clear path for us individuals to follow in “saving” the world.

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  6. Hey Zeke. It is so great that you are there – on the front lines – observing one of the huge impacts of climate change.

    Once I read your request, what immediately came to mind is Naomi Klein’s book – “This Changes Everything”. I think that she is right on… that we cannot adequately address climate change without transforming our economic system. I have not yet read her book – though it is on my list. She was one the the key leaders in organizing the 400,000 person climate march in NYC that Bill and I marched in – and also in producing the 350.org movie “Disruption” (a confronting and excellent 60 minute movie available on youtube). She is a brilliant Canadian woman – an out-of-the-box thinker who is the kind of leader that Victoria mentions in her post.

    Here is a quote from Klein’s book and a link to the website:

    “Forget everything you think you know about global warming. The really inconvenient truth is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. The convenient truth is that we can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”
    http://thischangeseverything.org/book/

    Thanks for starting this dialog!

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  7. The more I look at situations like this the more I see how the pursuit of money at a personal as well as a corporation, a national and an international level creates a narrow, unsatisfying, and unsustainable view of reality. In that limited world view Tuvalu is a mere blip on the horizon. On the other hand humanity as a whole has developed great power through organization and invention. Perhaps now we have the opportunity to learn how to deploy our resources for the benefit of all of us with no one left behind. Then we can each fully enjoy our good fortune.

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  8. I began to write a comment right after you asked your questions, but for reasons I don’t understand I managed to delete it. Then company arrived. Sigh. In the meantime, you have already had numerous thoughtful replies, many of which I completely agree with, including the imperative that Winner-Take-All Robber Capitalism has to be halted — though how I have no clue!

    There are other countries, most notably these days are the Maldives (26 atolls and 1200 islands) and Bangladesh. They are only a few feet above sea level and, like Tuvalu, are immediately threatened. In addition, though not always associated with environmental change in the minds of many, are increasing problems of drought, not only in places like CA, but also in China and Africa, where vast areas of land are quickly becoming unable to produce anything. In China, for example, the Gobi Desert is expanding at the rate of approx 1300 miles a year, forcing huge numbers of peoples to move into ever more crowded urban cities. Then there is flooding, in places that don’t normally experience them and/or at levels or frequency not usually associated with particular parts of the world. The list goes on. All of them are creating climate change refugees. Some forecast tens of thousands of them in the next few decades; some, more alarming say up to a billion by 2100. Regardless of the numbers, people are already on the move or may soon be. The Maldives, are preparing an evacuation plan working with the UN and the governments of New Zealand and Australia.

    Culturally, of course, that leaves vast number of peoples losing their homelands, the physical and emotional ground of being, their history, culture and before too long their ethnicity. One could say peoples have been doing that for millennium one way or another, for various reason — war, climate, looking for new or better lands and so on — but this time these kinds of movements are different. It will be happening, first slowly, then with increasing intensity, all over the world — not just in specific places, at different times, for varying reasons. These refugees will be on the move at the same time that rapidly growing populations and their impacts are also causing enormous problems: not enough jobs, water shortages, food production and distribution, lack of proper sewage, inadequate transportation, spread of diseases and wars (some have already persuasively argued that much of the “unrest” in the Middle East is also about access to water due to already significant storages).

    Where does that leave us in the US? We are also feeling the impact and it will increase here, too, though so far we have been able to basically ignore it or find temporary work-arounds. But we do not live in a bubble, as much as we would like to believe (or hope) we do. So, yes, saving Tuvalu or the Maldives is important. If for no other reason (if one wants to look at it from only a selfish perspective — not my POV) that finding ways to keep these lands above water could be a kind of laboratory for when other countries will be facing the same or similar issues. Is that enough of a reason, especially since the rise in water levels is not the only cause for necessary relocation? I honestly don’t know. What I do believe is that for the common good, for the sake of global humanity (if the powers-that-be as a whole even care about that), we should try. Immediately by engineering technology, though most importantly by cutting way back on our carbon (and other) over use. If, however, the water levels get too high, then thoughtful, carefully planned relocation will have to take place. Heartbreaking as that will be. As someone else commented, these countries are the canary in the mines.

    Individually I do believe that how we each live is an example for others. When Tom and I had our farm further up the coast and before then our huge gardens in Maryland, along with other life choices we made, we were attempting to mindfully live according to our beliefs, wanting to cut down on our footprint. When, for health reasons, we had to move to a town, we wanted to locate in an area where we wouldn’t have to be in the car all the time, driving long distances. I still make other decisions daily about what I do and how I do it with the environment in mind.

    So, yes, bring on the T-shirts. I’ll buy a bunch to give to friends and family. Save Tuvalu/Maldives, Save the World! And, maybe ourselves and our great-grandchildren’s children.

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  9. thanks for sharing as much as you are Zeke! I esp love your pictures (and imagining myself there too!) What an adventure you are on! sending much love.

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