A thin white smile curves across the blank face of the South Pacific Ocean, more than a mile below. Alittle lower, the whiteness resolves into an arc of breakers, and the tiny turboprop heads straight for them. Only at the last moment does a filament of land seem to emerge from the ocean. We touch down at Funafuti International Airport, Tuvalu’s only functioning airstrip, interrupting a soccer match on the runway.
The islands of Tuvalu, scattered over 500,000 square miles of equatorial ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia, appear so wispy and are so low-lying, no more than 15 feet above sea level, that it’s easy to visualize the waves just washing over them. It’s November, cyclone season, and I anxiously scan the area for high ground and finally settle on an unfinished three-story government building.
My uneasiness is stoked by dire pronouncements that Tuvalu’s leaders have been making for more than a decade. The planet’s fourth-smallest nation, they say, faces extinction because of climate change. Rising seas and deadly storms have reportedly started to swamp the islands, and fears are growing that Tuvalu will be uninhabitable or may vanish entirely within a few decades. Prime Minister Saufatu Sapo’aga told the United Nations last year that the global-warming threat is no different from “a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.” Independent scientists also offer a grim forecast. “Because of its location and physical nature, Tuvalu is particularly susceptible to the adverse impacts of climate change and in particular rising sea level,” concludes a 1996 scientific study coauthored by the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme and the government of Japan.
Unlike other current or predicted environmental catastrophes, Tuvalu’s problem is one that people worldwide are believed to create by burning fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. In that sense, my habit of leaving lights on around my house, in Washington, D.C., a neighbor’s of constantly driving his large SUV to go just a few city blocks and another neighbor’s preference for a toasty house in winter would play a role in Tuvalu’s fate. In fact, Tuvalu threatened in 2002 to sue the United States and Australia for excessive carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, some Tuvaluans are getting ready to abandon their homeland. “Islanders Consider Exodus as Sea Level Rises,” the British newspaper The Guardian reported last year.
A new Atlantis? Maybe. But not all scientists agree that Tuvalu’s future is underwater. Some critics have branded island leaders as opportunists angling for foreign handouts and special recognition for would-be “environmental refugees” who, they say, are exploiting the crisis to gain entry to New Zealand and Australia. Others have even said that people and organizations sympathetic to Tuvalu are “eco-imperialists” intent on imposing their alarmist environmental views on the rest of the world.
The challenge is to see through the fog of rhetoric and conflicting scientific views to where global climate theory might—or might not—intersect with Tuvalu’s people. But that’s surprisingly difficult to do. Most experts who have weighed in on the matter haven’t visited Tuvalu, and those who have made the journey typically have an agenda of their own. “Everyone arrives with a story,” says Ursula Kaly, an Australian ecologist and former longtime environmental adviser to Tuvalu. “Their minds are made up beforehand.” After I toured Tuvalu, reviewed the scientific evidence and spoke with climate experts and other scientists, I gathered that the nation and its nearly 10,000 people are indeed in trouble and may even be doomed. But rising seas are only part of the problem.
This afternoon the wind is shrieking, the sky is gunmetal gray and the rain falls in thick sheets. Despite the deluge, the good news, says Hilia Vavae, the nation’s chief meteorologist, is that seawater doesn’t seem to be infiltrating neighborhood wells and taro patches or flooding onto the airport runway.
A rangy woman of middle years, Vavae cuts an unusual figure in her native Tuvalu: she is an Australian-trained scientist and a Muslim in a traditional and Christian society. Lately, she has also played Cassandra to her laid-back countrypeople. “I think we have a lot to worry about,” she says later in her computer-filled office. “Cyclones and tropical storms have been getting much worse since the 1980s. We had a big drought starting in 1999. Flooding from extreme high tides is increasing also.” Big swells and freak waves are washing over the island more frequently. And then there’s a different kind of flood. “In the late 1990s, water started coming out of the ground—first puddles, then a whole sea. That had nothing to do with rain.” The net effect, Vavae says, is that little by little Tuvalu is beginning to wash away.
Other islanders say much the same. Tauala Katea, a young employee at the meteorology station, says that ten feet of beachfront have disappeared over the past decade on the island of Vaitupu. Falealuga Apelamo, 77, a retired fisherman and farmer, says one small islet from the nearby atoll of Nukufetau has “drowned,” another is almost gone and the sea is crashing through a third. “The big waves and winds and storms used to come in November and December,” he adds. “Now it’s any time of the year.” At the northern tip of Funafuti, a gun emplacement, planted on dry land by U.S. soldiers in World War II, now sits 20 feet offshore. At the southern end, old-timers say, their meeting hall used to stand in the middle of the village. Now it is waterfront property.
It’s this sort of devastation that prompts Tuvalu’s leaders to cry foul. “The rest of the world should act immediately and together to cut down on its use of greenhouse gases,” says Paani Laupepa, an assistant secretary in Tuvalu’s Department of Foreign Affairs, headquartered on the second floor of a private home in Funafuti. By “rest of the world,” Laupepa mostly means the United States and Australia, the world’s largest overall and highest per capita producers, respectively, of greenhouse gases—and the only developed countries that declined to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which calls for gradually reducing emissions of those gases. (U.S. officials say the protocol doesn’t cover developing countries, sets arbitrary emission-reduction targets and would harm the economy.) “The United States, with a small percentage of the world’s people, uses 25 percent of the world’s resources,” Laupepa goes on. “You Americans have a good lifestyle, all the conveniences, three or four cars per family. You need to appreciate the impact that has on our lives here.”