ROME — The highest hill in the island nation of Tuvalu reaches just 15-feet above sea level. Built on a scattering of low-lying coral atolls, it wouldn’t take much of a rise in sea levels to put much of its territory underwater.
Worse yet, there is little the nation’s 12,000 inhabitants can do to head off such a catastrophe — one that is ever more likely with the impending threat of climate change. Cutting back on greenhouse gas production would do little to slow the pace of climate change. Nor, short of asking other countries to take them in when their homes go under, can they do much to adapt to its impacts.
Yet the tiny Polynesian nation is taking on the challenge of mitigation anyway. Eight years after the country’s president petitioned its neighbors to commit to accept its citizens as environmental refugees, Tuvalu announced last month it plans to cut its carbon output to zero, switching all of its electricity production to renewable sources by 2020.
"We look forward to the day when our nation offers an example to all — powered entirely by natural resources such as the sun and the wind," Kausea Natano, the country’s public utilities minister, said in a statement. (Currently, one American produces the same amount of greenhouse gases as 50 of the islands’ resident.)
Tuvalu’s case is representative of the problems faced by poor countries all over that find themselves vulnerable to climate change. Whether threatened by rising sea levels (small island nations, low-lying Bangladesh), at risk of succumbing to drought (East Africa, parts of Latin America) or simply likely to be hit harder by natural disasters (the whole world), these nations find themselves in jeopardy without being able to do much about it. Stripped of any control over their future, all they can do is lead by example, and hope to shame the bigger polluters into following along.
When in 2001 Tuvalu declared that it would most likely have to evacuate, its government stopped short of making a formal petition. Last summer, however, the neighboring nation of Kiribati made an official request for help in evacuating its 100,000 citizens, and the Maldives have since announced it was establishing an investment fund in hopes of being able to buy land for its 300,000 residents when it too succumbs to the waves.
In Bangladesh, where 150 million people crowd into a country where most of the land is at or just above sea level, officials see a direct correlation between the greenhouse gases emitted by people in rich countries and their responsibility for the fate of Bangladesh's citizens.
The country’s leading climate change expert, A. Atiq Rahman, the executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, likes to joke that people in the rich world should make up for their greenhouse gases by taking in environmental refugees, hosting one Bangladeshi family for every ten thousand tons of carbon emitted.
Tuvulu’s push for clean power, which it expects will cost $20 million, largely provided by donors, is an explicit attempt to “strengthen [Tuvalu’s] voice” in the upcoming climate negotiations, according to Natano’s statement.
Yet while the efforts are symbolic, the stakes are real. In Tuvulu, residents say they can already see the impacts of the changing climate. Warmer waters have damaged the coral reefs, threatening the supply of fish and leaving the islands’ vulnerable to stronger seas. Higher tides and stronger storms are eroding the coastlines and flooding palm plantations with salt water, slowly killing the trees and ruining the aquifer.
The tiny nation is hoping its voice will be heard before the ocean drowns it out.