Farewell: Tuvalu Speech
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COP26: The Tuvalu Speech

A Sinking Nation

Disquieting news inundates us daily, and we are inclined to occasionally fantasize about moving to a tropical island to “get away from it all.” Unfortunately, our dreams were interrupted during COP26 by an unusual speech from the tiny nation of Tuvalu. Simon Kofe, the nation’s Minister for Justice, Communication & Foreign Affairs, delivered a remote address to the COP26 delegates while standing knee-deep in the rising oceans around his homeland.

Tuvalu is a tiny nation of 12,000 people crowded onto nine small islands with about 26 square kilometers of livable land. However, two of the nine islands are in the process of disappearing below the waves. So, the nation finds itself on the margins of climate change.

Most usable land on the islands is only several meters above the ocean, and sea-level rise, along with coastal erosion, annually reduces the amount of livable real estate. Also, saltwater intrusion, related to increasing sea levels, encroaches yearly on these islands’ fragile freshwater aquifers, rendering traditional farming almost useless. Reliance on imported food is the norm, and thus the future looks bleak for this small, impoverished nation.

Since the first serious discussion about climate change in the last half of the 20th century, the prevailing political and social attitude has been “Why do today, what you can put off until tomorrow?” The impacts of climate change are often seen as future threats, not present-day ones. The tides are shifting, however, as climate change at the margins creeps in.

The Bleeding Edge of Climate Change

The underlying truth is, humanity has always dealt with rising sea levels. Recent work at an archeological site off the coast of Israel uncovered the earliest known example of a sea wall. A wall that appears designed to keep back the rising tides. At a location currently several meters underwater, a Neolithic community battled the seas by building a 100-meter-long wall of boulders at the water’s edge.

Our ancestors fought and lost this battle about 7,000 years ago. Fast forward to today, and we live in an era where an exploding world population has collided with the fruits of its own advance, global warming and rapidly rising seas. The threat of sea-level rise is disproportionately large for humans because of the way we have settled near the oceans.

About a third of the world’s population lives within 100 meters of sea level. Our return to an ice-free planet will submerge the first 66 meters of global coastlines. In the USA alone, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, Charleston, New York, Boston, and Washington DC will all disappear beneath the waves.

We have chosen to locate many of our major cities by the sea. These decisions have their roots in trade, economics, and a traditional reliance on shipping to build wealth and power. Despite the good reasons for locating near the sea, the threat remains. Our habitats are fixed, and our ability to migrate to happier hunting grounds, as our ancestors did, is limited. Drowning cities and submerging nations are on the bleeding edge of climate change.

COP26 Exposes the Limits of Our Collective Will

Highlights from the COP26 Conference were not encouraging, and The Guardian summarized some of them:

Architects of the Paris climate agreement declared the COP26 targets will fail to avert disaster.

The Amazon rainforest is tittering on a catastrophic tipping point as wildfires and deforestation threaten its existence.

The COP26 deadline for reaching a global agreement passed without any results.

But probably the most relevant critique of the COP26 conference was provided in the consensus reached by four independent groups who assessed the current agreements. “They suggest that current policies will lead to a best-estimate of around 2.6C to 2.7C warming by 2100 (with an uncertainty range of 2C to 3.6C).” We can translate their statement to, “Perhaps we can limit temperature rise to 3 degrees C.

The issue at hand is less about our scientific and technological understanding of the climate crisis and more about a lack of collective will to address threats posed by climate change and rising sea levels. Much of the world is still content to “wait and see,” but those living on the margins of climate change are understandably vocal about their anxiety as their homes sink below the waters of climate change.

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‘One day we’ll disappear’: Tuvalu’s sinking islands (Eleanor Ainge Roy — The Guardian)

Ancient humans tried to defend against rising seas. They failed. (Maddie Bender — Vice)

This one image illustrates the severity of climate change (by Margo Milanowski; Popular Science)

What happened at Cop26 — day 12 at a glance (Source: The Guardian)

Analysis: Do COP26 promises keep global warming below 2C? (Source: Carbon Brief)

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.