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Tuvalu’s Disappearance Act

How did a small island nation prosper with globalization, but suffer side effects?

May 1, 2003

How did a small island nation prosper with globalization, but suffer side effects?

During the 20th century, the world’s sea level rose by 20-30 centimeters (or 8-12 inches). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a rise of up to one meter during this century.

The sea level is rising because of the melting of glaciers and the thermal expansion of the ocean as a result of climate change.

This in turn is due to rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), largely from burning fossil fuels.

As the sea level has risen, Tuvalu has experienced lowland flooding. The resulting saltwater intrusion is adversely affecting its drinking water and food production.

Coastal erosion is eating away at the nine islands that make up the country, which total 26 square kilometers in land area.

The higher temperatures that are raising the sea level also lead to more destructive storms. Higher surface water temperatures in the tropics and subtropics mean more energy radiating into the atmosphere to drive storm systems.

Paani Laupepa, a Tuvaluan government official, reports an unusually high level of tropical cyclones during the last decade. (Tropical cyclones are called hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.)

Laupepa is bitterly critical of the United States for abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

He told a BBC reporter that “by refusing to ratify the Protocol, the United States has effectively denied future generations of Tuvaluans their fundamental freedom to live where our ancestors have lived for thousands of years.”

For the leaders of island countries, this is not a new issue. In October 1987, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives — an island nation and, unlike Tuvalu, a famous tourist destination — noted in an impassioned address to the United Nations General Assembly that his country was threatened by the rising sea level.

In his words, his country of 311,000 was “an endangered nation.” With most of its 1,196 tiny islands barely two meters above sea level, the Maldives’ survival would be in jeopardy with even a one meter rise in sea level in the event of a storm surge.

Tuvalu is the first country to face evacuation because of rising seas, but it almost certainly will not be the last. And what are the implications of this type of evacuation?

After being rebuffed by Australia, the Tuvaluans asked New Zealand to accept its 11,000 citizens, but it has not agreed to do so.

Tuvalu is seeking a home for 11,000 people, but what about the 311,000 who may be forced to leave the Maldives, off the South Eastern coast of India? Who will accept them?

Or the millions of others living in low-lying countries (such as Bangladesh) who may soon join the flow of climate refugees?

Are we moving toward a world where the United Nations will be forced to develop a climate-immigrant quota system, allocating the refugees among countries according to the size of their population?

Or will the allocation be according to the contribution of individual countries to the climate change that caused the displacement?

Feeling threatened by the climate change over which they have little control, the island countries have organized into an Alliance of Small Island States, a group formed in 1990 specifically to lobby on behalf of these countries vulnerable to climate change.

In addition to island nations, low-lying coastal countries are also threatened by rising sea level. In 2000, the World Bank published a map showing that a one meter rise in sea level would inundate half of Bangladesh’s riceland.

With a rise in sea level of up to one meter forecast for this century, Bangladeshis would be forced to migrate not by the thousands, but by the millions.

In a country with 134 million people — already one of the most densely populated on the earth — this would be a traumatic experience. Where will these climate refugees go?

Rice-growing river floodplains in other Asian countries would also be affected, including India, Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, and China. With a one meter rise in sea level, more than a third of Shanghai would be under water.

For China as a whole, 70 million people would be vulnerable to a 100-year storm surge. And even the United States is threatened. The most easily measured effect of rising sea level is the inundation of coastal areas.

Donald F. Boesch, of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Sciences, estimates that for each millimeter rise in sea level, the shoreline retreats an average of 1.5 meters. Thus, if the sea level rises by one meter, the coastline will retreat by 1,500 meters, or nearly a mile.

With such a rise, the United States would lose 36,000 square kilometers (or 14,000 square miles) of land — with the middle Atlantic and Mississippi Gulf states losing the most.

Hard to believe as it may be, large portions of lower Manhattan — and the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., would be flooded with seawater during a 50-year storm surge.

Coastal real estate prices are likely to be one of the first economic indicators to reflect the rise in sea level. Those with heavy investments in beachfront properties will suffer most.

A half-meter rise in sea level in the United States could bring losses ranging from $20 billion to $150 billion. Moreover, beachfront properties, much like nuclear power plants, are becoming uninsurable — as many homeowners in Florida have discovered.

Many developing countries already coping with population growth, intense competition for living space — and cropland — now face the prospect of rising sea level and substantial land losses.

Some of those most directly affected have contributed to the least buildup in atmospheric CO2, which is what is causing this problem.

While wealthy Western owners are facing the loss of valuable beachfront properties, low-lying island people are facing something far more serious: the loss of their nationhood.

They feel terrorized by U.S. energy policy — and they view the United States as a rogue nation, indifferent to their plight and unwilling to cooperate and implement the Kyoto Protocol.

It also raises questions about responsibility to other nations and to future generations that humanity has never before faced.