Australia called out by drowning nation Tuvalu as it plans for grim future

Tuvalu's entire culture will be uploaded to a digital archive as its islands are inundated by rising sea water.

Can a country exist after it has been wiped off the map?

If you ask the leaders of the Pacific nation of Tuvalu, then the answer is yes. Faced with being consumed by rising sea levels, the Pacific nation is determined to protect its identity by creating a digital archive of its culture.

We sat down with the special envoy of Tuvalu’s Future Now Project, Foreign Minister Simon Kofe, to discuss the race to protect his culture, and his frustration that countries like Australia, China and the United States continue to approve new fossil fuel projects despite their emissions threatening his homeland.

"It is frustrating to see countries not taking strong enough climate action. I think it's even hypocrisy to some extent," Kofe told Yahoo News Australia.

Left - Kofe standing in water addressing leaders at COP26. Right - Kofe speaking to Yahoo.
Two years after he addressed world leaders at COP26, Simon Kofe fears his nation's warnings are sounding like a broken record. Source: Reuters/Yahoo

The digital nation plan Kofe is leading was launched last year at COP27 but it has only been recognised by 26 countries. During the COP28 talks, he hopes to double the number of signatories.

“We think about our children and our grandchildren who may not have the same opportunity that we have to live on our homeland,” he said.

“This is part of the motivation why we’re trying to save our islands, but to also preserve the very soul and spirit of the nation. These two can actually be decoupled — the physical and the spiritual.”

What will Tuvalu's digital ark include?

While he concedes the digital nation will not be as authentic, Tuvalu is determined to “save its spirit and the values” because of the grim situation it finds itself in.

Tuvalu’s ark will preserve an “essence” of the nation including stories from elders and the sound of children speaking the local language.

A still of the digital archive of Tuvalu.
A digital archive will created to safeguard Tuvalu's culture from climate change. Source: Yahoo

Like all small island nations, Tuvalu has a tiny carbon footprint, so it is not directly responsible for the changes in weather that are destroying it.

As one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels, the emissions Australia produces are a major contributor to climate change, and its Prime Minister Anthony Albanese signed an agreement with Tuvalu last month offering residency to some of its population.

But rather than simply rehouse his people, Kofe wants Australia to also give them help to save their homeland.

“I need to ensure that Tuvaluans have hope… relocation can be used against us. Bigger countries can say listen, you can relocate to Australia, New Zealand and that solves your problem. It doesn't solve the problem. And so we're very careful about using relocation as a solution to the climate crisis,” he said.

Australia called out for subsidising fossil fuel projects

Tuvalu wants its larger neighbours to realise the window to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis is closing.

“As you know, Australia continues to approve new coal mines and even goes to the extent of subsidising them. So that really is inconsistent with our objective of cutting down greenhouse gas emissions… I would say Australia is not doing enough and in fact it would be going in the opposite direction,” he said.

Anthony Albanese at the Pacific leaders forum.
Anthony Albanese signed an agreement to allow some residents of Tuvalu to live in Australia. Source: AAP

With the United Nations COP28 climate talks underway, Tuvalu is working to bring awareness about how the crisis is affecting their day to day lives. But Kofe feels like its message has become like a “broken record” because the current pledges will not be enough to meet the Paris target of 1.5 degrees of warming.

At COP26 two years ago, he famously addressed world leaders from his homeland while up to his knees in water to highlight the issue of rising sea levels.

But the magnitude of the climate change appears hard to grasp for many large nations which are continuing to resist calls to halt the production of fossil fuels. So Tuvalu hopes it can convince the citizens of those nations about its plight.

“If they gain understanding about what we’re going through in Tuvalu, then we hope they’re able to put pressure on their leaders to take stronger climate action. And in fact, we hope they are able to vote for leaders that really are serious about addressing the climate crisis,” Kofe said.

How Tuvalu has been impacted by climate change

For people living in Tuvalu, the climate crisis isn’t hypothetical anymore.

“We had a cyclone hit us and we we had very strong wave surges that came across our islands and the graveyards were actually upended, and we had bones floating around in the village on one of the islands,” Kofe said.

“That was because of a very strong storm that we experienced. And so these are going to be frequent if we do not address the climate crisis.

“Droughts will become more severe, and in Tuvalu we depend on rainwater for drinking so you can imagine what happens if we go without water for a month… it has an impact on life, both humans, animals, and plants and trees. Everything depends on that.”

Tuvalu determined to fight for future

Asked whether the inaction by larger nations is impacting the mental health of his people, Kofe indicated they will continue to fight.

“The thought of losing your home will have a psychological impact on people,” he said.

“But you know, Tuvaluans are resilient people. We lived for centuries in very harsh conditions, our ancestors were navigators, we travelled from place to place finding a place to live.

“Our people are resilient people.”

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