GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — The United Nations climate talks got a jolt on Tuesday when the small island nation of Tuvalu’s foreign minister delivered a bracing speech from the Pacific. Literally.
Simon Kofe stood in front of a blue backdrop telling delegates how endangered his island is from rising seas. Then, as the drone shot pulled back, it revealed Kofe was standing in knee-deep water as waves lapped in the background against the low-lying atoll.
It’s a dramatic illustration of the plight small islands face from the climate crisis and harkens back to other efforts by small island nations to snap the world out of its reverie and addiction to fossil fuels. The Maldives held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009 while the Seychelles president gave a speech from 400 feet (122 meters) below the Indian Ocean in 2019. But Kofe’s speech was perhaps the most striking, showing the limbo small island states find themselves trapped in as some of the world’s smallest emitters who will be the first to disappear if the world fails to meaningfully end carbon pollution.
“We are sinking, but so is everyone else,” Kofe said. He added that “this call to you from Tuvalu is not just a political statement. It is a call that reverberates from our eight islands our 12,000 people to the international community. We are petitioning and demanding that global net zero be secured by mid-century. That 1.5 degrees be kept within reach. That urgently needed climate finance be mobilized for loss and damage.”
Tuvalu isn’t just the canary in the coal mine. It’s the canary being buried in a growing pile of coal. The nation sits atop a series of atolls, small islands that are built upon the skeletons of coral reefs past. Its highest point is just 15 feet (4.6 meters) above sea level. The vast, vast majority of the island nation, though, is within 3 feet (1 meter) of the current sea level, and its water comes from delicate freshwater lenses ensconced above saltwater.
Climate change is causing seas to rise by melting land ice and heating up water, causing it to expand. So in a sense, Tuvalu isn’t sinking, it’s being swallowed by oceans at an accelerating rate. The nation and other small islands have been the moral center of climate talks for years. Thanks to their advocacy, we’re talking about the 1.5-degree-Celsius (2.7-degree-Fahrenheit) goal. That’s because failing to reduce emissions in line with that target will unleash unstoppable sea level rise that will make many atolls uninhabitable within decades. The world reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is crucial for staying within that temperature boundary.
Beyond staying within that guardrail, Kofe’s demands also include accounting for loss and damage. In essence, it’s a request by developing countries who have very little role in causing the climate crisis for money from developed nations that have driven it and profited handsomely. It’s a contentious issue because money is always like that. But small nations view it as a moral imperative given the havoc they face.
Tuvalu and other nations such as Kiritbati have explored buying land in other countries should seas consume their islands. But as Kofe noted, they’re also looking to maintain economic rights to the sea that surrounds them and working on creating a digital nation that would be a sort of online diaspora. Kofe noted that the nation is doing its part to protect its citizens and world. But the bigger emitters need to show up and do the same.
“In Tuvalu, we are living the realities of climate change. ... We cannot wait around for speeches when the sea is rising around us all,” he said.