Photo by Lyle Hastie on Unsplash
By Aili Channer (she/her)
‘Thirty years ago, I was asked about the sea level rise,’ says Teuleala, a retired civil servant, climate change activist and now co-founder of an NGO with a focus on food security in relation to climate change, sanitation and hygiene, and women’s empowerment. ‘I recall I replied with emotion, that this is my home and my identity, and whatever the consequences I will choose to stay.’
Tuvalu is a small island state composed of six atolls and three reef islands, making it nine isolated atoll islands, in the Pacific Ocean, situated midway between Australia and Hawaii. Atolls are ring-shaped coral reefs surrounding lagoons. The rings of land are often no more than four hundred metres in width, meaning that there is nearly always a view of the sea through the coconut trees. The sea level is now rising by 3.9 millimetres each year, which is more than double the global average . Because of this, there are concerns that the islands could cease to be habitable over the next decades.
In the world’s major economies, the torpor of institutional and sometimes individual action to reduce carbon emissions can be explained by the perceived discrepancy between the gravity of scientific predictions and the business-as-usual of everyday life in an economic system that places value on short-term profits, rather than on safeguarding the future. Global inequalities are therefore at the crux of climate inaction, because anthropogenic climate change is posing the most immediate threat to the nations and communities which contribute the least to global greenhouse gas emissions. This perpetuates the apparent disconnect between cause and effect in the Global North, and makes it all the more essential to approach environmental decision-making through a global, rather than a national lens, and to make sure that the experiences of those most vulnerable to climate change are heard.
Modern technology makes it possible for us to educate ourselves and learn from the experiences of others. Only a few years ago, our conversation would have not even been conceivable, but thanks to the spread of internet connection in the islands, I was able to interview Teuleala face-to-face from my bedroom in France via a Facebook video call, while studying from home during a national lockdown.
Sea-level rise is what comes most readily to mind when thinking about the impact of climate change on island nations, perhaps because its relationship with global warming is particularly clear-cut. Rising temperatures cause the thermal expansion of the seawater alongside the melting of ice-sheets and glaciers, causing sea level to rise. In Tuvalu, Teuleala tells me, coastal erosion is already having damaging impacts. On one of the islands, waves from the ocean are starting to cover it with water during storms, and to flood homes. Houses have to be built on stilts so that families can escape the flooding during cyclones. Mangroves have been introduced to some of the islands in an attempt to protect against erosion.
The effects of the rising sea level are also being exacerbated by other, less understood, changes, notably the increasingly unpredictable weather. The cyclones that cause flooding are becoming more frequent. Even more worryingly, rainfall has become less regular, which presents a very real danger to Tuvaluans because it is the islands’ main source of fresh water. Teuleala describes how having to ration buckets of water between families during droughts has become commonplace. The coconut trees have also suffered from the droughts, which is alarming because they are a staple food and one of the few crops grown on the islands.
The covid-19 pandemic has revealed the vulnerability that comes with dependence on imports from overseas, with the islands sometimes being left cut off from the supply chain. This has led to a new emphasis on growing traditional foods, but the yields are impacted by the coastal erosion and unpredictable weather, meaning that the concurrent pressures of climate change and the pandemic are jeopardising the islands’ food security. The most important traditional food is pulaka, or giant swamp taro, a root vegetable traditionally grown in pits dug into the atoll. Because of the higher tides and frequent flooding, saltwater is now polluting the pits, tending to rot the vegetables.
Teuleala explains to me that pulaka is an integral part of the Tuvaluan way of life, having a cultural significance that extends far beyond its value as a staple food. The pits where the plants are grown are maintained by the same families over generations, with the skill being passed from parents to their children. A family’s status in the community, she tells me, is partly determined by the size of the tubers of the vegetables they grow in their pits. It is therefore not only the nation’s staple crop but also its culture and way of life that is under threat from climate change.
Climate change adaptation strategies are being trialled to sustain pulaka cultivation, notably lining the pits with cement to prevent the intrusion of saltwater, but it is uncertain how long these will be able to keep up with the pace of rising tides.
The sense of cultural identity and rootedness that goes with the traditional way of life is what makes the possibility that the islands will disappear so hard. Every year, Teuleala tells me, some thirty people migrate to New Zealand, but many young people also return from studying overseas with the conviction that Tuvalu is where they want to live, making them some of the strongest advocates for staying. The country’s leaders have been clear that if it comes down to it, the population will have to leave, but the loss of identity and belonging this would entail makes it unthinkable for many Tuvaluans.
Teuleala explains, her voice breaking up, that the communities come together to pray for their future on the islands, but that it feels beyond their control. ‘I believe in these islands,’ she says, ‘but we’ve been told we have another thirty years to go.’
The future feels uncertain. Meanwhile, the threats posed by climate change are fuelling the country’s development, bringing in funding from overseas that feeds into other activities, such as the work of Teuleala’s NGO on using a raised wicking system to grow local food crops to replace growing foods in pulaka pits.
The country also now has a particularly important diplomatic voice, as a member of the Alliance of Small Island States, an organisation that acts as a negotiating voice in the United Nations, focusing on climate change, sustainable development, and ocean conservation. The Pacific islands continue to have a disproportionately positive impact in international climate negotiations. They are the drivers behind initiatives such as the Tony deBrum declaration, named after the Marshallese politician and climate activist, which was signed by thirty-five nations to lobby the shipping industry to decarbonise. 
The Marshall Islands, an archipelago of atolls in the Micronesian subregion, like Tuvalu are threatened with disappearance. As Ambassador Doreen de Brum, Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum of Nations and Permanent Representative of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations, put it, ‘The term “climate refugee” is not a theoretical one for us. When I think of the next generation of Marshallese people, I don’t know if they will have a country.’  The rupture with their roots that would result from being a people left without a country would be a deeply devastating cultural loss.
The small island states are speaking up, but sadly, the rest of the world continues to fiddle while Rome burns. If these countries are to have a future, it is imperative that the international community acts with all urgency, now.
Aili Channer, firstname.lastname@example.org