Climate Countdown
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What Happens When Your Country Drowns?

Meet the people of Tuvalu, the world's first climate refugees.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that $86 billion will need to be spent annually by 2015 to help developing countries adapt to the effects of global warming. The UN has launched a fund for this purpose, but it has only collected $100 million so far. What's more, rich countries commonly use so-called adaptation funds as a bargaining tool to push for lower emissions from the industrializing countries of the developing world. Thus the fate of Tuvalu, which generates a tiny fraction of the world's greenhouse gases—and aims to be carbon neutral by 2020—is held hostage by the 4.3 percent produced by India, the fourth-largest emitter. "Doing a deal in Copenhagen is, to an important extent, about engaging developing countries," Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate change official, has said. "And an important part of engaging countries is providing funds."

Even some environmental and humanitarian groups have been wary of the topic, believing that shifting the conversation to seawalls and water storage will undercut political momentum for cutting emissions. "There has been an unwitting conspiracy between strong advocates for doing something to prevent the consequences of climate change and those who deny that climate change is a problem," L. Craig Johnstone, the UN's deputy high commissioner for refugees, told me. "The one is fearful that if adaptation and disaster response are seen as the answer, people will stop trying to do anything about global warming. The others think it's all nonsense."

As a result, the notion of either adapting to climate change or migrating because of it barely figures on the agenda at international climate talks. Johnstone remarked that he was proud to have "broken new ground" by simply chairing a meeting on the subject at climate talks in Poland late last year. "A lot of times people say, 'It's interesting but we don't know how to cope with this,'" says Warner of the United Nations University. "Does it belong in Copenhagen? Or is it something different?"

More and more Tuvaluan families are resettling in New Zealand. More and more Tuvaluan families are resettling in New Zealand.

TUVALUANS, MEANWHILE, lack the luxury of procrastinating over existential questions such as, When does a nation cease to be a nation? Can you maintain a government, let alone an identity, if your land can no longer be inhabited?

Mose Saitala has thought a lot about such dilemmas. He was the Tuvaluan secretary of finance in the 1990s, when the government became convinced that its country could disappear in 50 years. It even considered moving people to 2,000 acres of land that Tuvaluans had contemplated acquiring in Fiji, until a coup and ethnic tensions made the plan unpalatable.

Today, the genial Saitala lives in Auckland, where he helps to run a finance company that serves Pacific Islanders. When we met, I expected him to advocate for New Zealand to open its doors to more Tuvaluan migrants. (New Zealand has only allocated them 75 slots annually in a visa program for Pacific workers.) But Saitala had a more creative proposition in mind. "Tuvalu has a lot of resources—$100 million in reserves," he mused. "They can easily buy a place that 10,000 people can fit into. Vanuatu, Solomons, and Papua New Guinea all have uninhabited islands. For me, I would prefer a big island off Australia, like the Norfolk Islands." In his mind, the major obstacles were legal and political ones: Could Tuvalu still earn money from fishing rights in its territorial waters if its people moved elsewhere? Would another country allow Tuvalu to remain an independent entity within its boundaries, perhaps a protectorate? And, after spending much of its savings buying a new homeland, would Tuvalu's government still be able to provide services to its people?

In numerous ways, climate change will unsettle laws and institutions shaped by the crises of a different era. The existing international system grew from the upheavals of World War II, crafted to react to violent conflicts whose existence is obvious and whose victims are reasonably easy to identify. But people displaced by environmental change fall through the cracks of that system. Refugee law only covers those who have been driven from their homeland for political reasons; because resources for such exiles are already strained, there is enormous resistance to broadening the definition. The apolitical, indeterminate effects of climate change, which require action in advance, not after the fact, may be beyond what the existing humanitarian regime can handle.

If we don't prepare, warns Walter Kälin, the UN secretary-general's representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, "people from islands and territories will start to migrate, legally or with an irregular situation, and overall the society will slowly disintegrate. For a certain time there will be a government, but it will be a fiction. It will be a slow process of whole nations dying in the social sense in addition to the geographical sense."

On my last Saturday in Auckland, I return to the church. Tuvalu's prime minister, Apisai Ielemia, is visiting New Zealand, and he's convened a meeting with his Auckland compatriots. A small group of Tuvaluans, mostly older adults this time, files into the hall wearing formal clothing and bearing the obligatory plates of food—an easy tradition in a place where anyone can fish for free, but one the poor among Auckland's Tuvaluans struggle to maintain. Ielemia makes a brief speech and asks the attendees to voice their concerns, and after a while, the conversation inevitably turns to climate change. Ielemia deflects queries with a smile, explaining that there is no official policy to relocate more Tuvaluans. The group isn't satisfied. A short, energetic woman dressed in Lycra shorts under a denim skirt stands up and lets out an exasperated tirade in Tuvaluan and English. "When something happens, we should have a plan in place so that people know what to expect, instead of just reacting. What is the plan?" she demands. "What is the plan?" So far, no one seems to have an answer.

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