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Will Tuvalu Disappear Beneath the Sea?

Global warming threatens to swamp a small island nation

But the armed forces aren’t the only guilty parties. Residents quarried for rocks, gravel and even sand for building materials, Tekinene says, promoting erosion. These days, construction materials for big projects must be imported. International aid organizations have also contributed to the problem—for instance, by encouraging Tuvaluans in the late 1980s to replenish a sea wall with beach rubble tossed ashore by a cyclone. The wall has disintegrated, and the shoreline, once protected by the rubble, is exposed.

And then there’s the population boom. Since 1980, the population of Funafuti has more than doubled, from about 2,000 to 4,500, or almost half of Tuvalu’s citizenry. “It can be a little tricky to judge which environmental effects are induced locally by humans and which are created by human societies outside Tuvalu,” Tekinene says.

In a way, Tuvalu is the planet writ small. Its poor environmental stewardship (which may hasten the effects of global warming) is no more egregious than that of most other, bigger countries. But because it is fragile, remote, resource-poor and low-lying, Tuvalu has less room for error than most other nations. The consequences—and the future—arrive sooner. And with greater force.

In a spotless kitchen decorated with children’s drawings in suburban Auckland, New Zealand, I drink tea with Koloa Talake, a Tuvalu native and the nation’s prime minister for nine months starting in December 2001. Talake had served on the board of a California company that in 2000 purchased the rights to Tuvalu’s Internet domain address extension (.tv), and he helped negotiate its resale to another U.S. company in 2002. That same year,Talake announced that Tuvalu, joined by Kiribati and the Maldives, planned to sue the United States and Australia at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The plaintiffs had planned to argue that the developed nations’ disproportionate carbon dioxide emissions contributed to global warming, which poses a threat to the islanders. But Talake failed in his reelection bid later that year, and the new government has not pursued the litigation. Whether a nation could prevail in such a lawsuit is open to question. For one thing, establishing a direct link between a particular nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and harm to Tuvalu is problematic. For another, the United States does not accept the jurisdiction of most international courts.

Talake says he had hoped his lawsuits would bring Tuvalu “several million dollars for the damage caused by emissions.” But that was secondary, he adds: “We are asking for a place to live if the tide comes against us. There are a lot of places in Australia and maybe America with no people.” He and his wife, Tilesa, now live in Auckland, along with their two sons, an engineer and a chef, and their families. “We have no children left in Tuvalu to take care of us,” he says.

Talake is part of a growing Tuvaluan community in New Zealand of some 2,000. Affluent Tuvaluans have long traveled here for higher education and good healthcare, but today’s newcomers more often pick strawberries for a living. I meet some of them at a church service in an Auckland suburb on a gray, blustery Sunday. The Reverend Suamalie Iosefa smiles broadly. But his face is weary. As a preacher and mental health worker, he deals with problems born of poverty and overcrowding, not to mention the shock of social dislocation. “Imagine moving from a nation without a stoplight to a modern city of a million people,” he says.

Iosefa thinks New Zealand offers a brighter future than Tuvalu “education-wise, health-wise, and especially because people feel threatened by global warming.” Acknowledging that threat, New Zealand’s government in 2002 established a new quota program for Pacific Islanders, which allows up to 75 Tuvaluans a year to immigrate. But Iosefa says no more than 21 people were approved in 2003.

As the voices of the men’s and women’s choirs rise in the hall, the stalwart hymns of England take wing on the rich harmonies of Polynesia. Most of the assembled, some 200 adults and children, sit or recline on mats. A quarter of the people in the room have overstayed their visas and face deportation. But Sutema Keakea, who has two young daughters and is 39 weeks pregnant, is among the lucky ones. A bank employee in Tuvalu, she just received approval for permanent residency under the new program. She left Tuvalu to be near other relatives, she says: “People do say they’re afraid of global warming and sea level rise, but I just don’t know.”

On this day, some of the Tuvaluans say they ponder the story of Noah and the Flood for clues to their future. “In Noah,” says one man, “the rainbow was a sign of God’s promise that there won’t ever be another flood again.” But another congregant disagrees. “Sea level will rise because things are different now from the old days,” he says. “The world God created was perfect, but people have made it imperfect.”

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