Tuvalunacy, or the real thing?

The link between climate change and migration is more complex than it might seem, writes David Corlett in this extract from his new book

27 November 2008



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Above: Funafuti atoll.
Photo: David Corlett

FROM THE FILAMONA LODGE, my temporary home in the middle of Fongafale – the main islet on Funafuti atoll, the capital of Tuvalu – I take a brief walk south, passing the AusAID office and the Coconut Wireless internet café. I find the grandly named but not so grand Tuvalu National Library and Archives. It is, as expected, packed with books and magazines. The books have tattered edges and faded spines, and there is a musty smell about the place. I am reminded more of a second hand bookshop than a library. In the Pacific Islands section I find an old copy of a book by Charles Darwin. Its pages have a brown tinge to them and are brittle; the cover is hard and khaki coloured with gold lettering on the spine. I can’t find any date of publication so it’s hard to tell if it is a very old book or whether it just seems old because it has had to survive in the tropical humidity. The book has an unwieldy title: On the Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs; also Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands and Parts of South America Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. I sit at an old wooden table on a vinyl-covered chair. An assortment of other chairs, two of them with their backs missing, surround the table.

I am excited by my find because it was here, on Funafuti, that Darwin’s theory about the creation of atolls was proven. Darwin had returned to London from his Pacific voyages as the Beagle’s naturalist in 1835–36 with a controversial theory. Coral islands, he surmised, were formed from coral growing on top of old volcanoes that had subsided beneath the sea. As the volcanoes slowly sank, dead coral was taken deeper into the ocean while new coral, which can only grow close to the surface of the ocean, grew up. Further volcanic activity then pushed the coral above the surface of the ocean, causing it to protrude in the form of atolls.

Later, I take a walk north, up Tuvalu Road and then right at Palagi (meaning “foreigner”) Road. Just around the corner I find a small concrete mound with a piece of poly-pipe sunk in the middle. It is Professor Edgeworth David’s drill hole. David travelled from Sydney to Funafuti in 1896, 1897 and 1898, eventually boring deep enough into the atoll to discover volcanic deposits, proving that Darwin’s theory on the formation of atolls was correct.

The formation and structure of the atoll has implications for the threat posed to Tuvalu by climate change. In the first instance, the islands of Tuvalu are flat and extremely low lying. At the highest point, Tuvalu is only five metres above mean sea level; its lowest point is said to be at sea level. The average altitude of Tuvalu is, depending on your source, only one or two metres above the sea. It would not take much for the country to be overwhelmed by high tides and waves associated with extreme weather events such as cyclones and hurricanes.

The structure of the atolls means that sea level rise will also have other effects. The coral substructure of atolls is naturally porous, allowing seawater to permeate. When the tide comes in, the water level below the surface rises. This is why, when the king tides hit, seawater percolates from under the ground. Should the sea level continue to rise, saltwater encroachments on the land will become more frequent.

It is also in the nature of atolls that, if they are over a certain size, they possess a freshwater “lens” that floats above the seawater below. The rain that falls on the islands seeps through the sand and gravel and, because it is lighter than salty water, pools on top of the seawater. The lens naturally rises and falls with the tides under the coral platform beneath the islands. It is the traditional water supply for the inhabitants of Tuvalu. More recently tanks have come into use, but on some islands the freshwater lens remains an important contingency supply of potable water in times of drought. Should the sea level rise too high, it is conceivable that the sea will push the lenses above the surface of the land, so that instead of being protected underground freshwater sources they become a series of fetid tidal puddles.

The atolls of Tuvalu are surrounded on the ocean side by coral reefs. These reefs offer protection from the full force of the ocean, a force that is easy, from the comfort of a large land, to underestimate. While coral has been around for longer than humans, the polyps that are its building blocks cannot survive if the water temperature rises more than 2° Celsius above their optimal levels. Warming seas, including localised temperature rises due to weather changes such as warmer weather without wind, and increasing ocean acidity associated with climate change, could put some coral species at risk. The loss or slowing of the growth of coral could leave the atolls more exposed to the full brunt of the pounding and rising seas.

I HAD ARRANGED to meet Luke Paeniu, the founding director of the Private Sector Organisation of Tuvalu and former director of aid with the Government of Tuvalu. He was late arriving. He had been held up preparing his pulaka pit before the high tide, he told me. Pulaka is a traditional root crop cultivated in Tuvalu. It is grown in flat-bottomed pits dug to the depth of the freshwater lens. Leaves of different plants are added to the pulaka pits, the compost from which fertilises the nutrient-poor soil. From above ground, pulaka plants are huge green leaves on stems of red or green. Think of silverbeet on steroids. Think of The Day of the Triffids.

Rising sea levels have begun to affect the pulaka. Luke Paeniu told me that the high tides are now higher than they used to be. He said that in the past, seawater would come onto Fongafale in Funafuti only during the king tides. But now, at every full moon, water penetrates the land. Each month there are two high tides, and the one at the full moon is exceptionally high – higher, according to Luke, than it used to be. This higher sea level means that the salt water gets among the roots of the pulaka.

Luke Paeniu is not the only pulaka grower to have experienced the rising sea levels. Toalipi Lauti is a former prime minister of Tuvalu. Indeed, he was Tuvalu’s first prime minister, taking the post in 1976 after Tuvalu had achieved independence not only from Britain, but also from its former colonial partner, present-day Kiribati. Toalipi is now an old man. He walks with a stoop and a stick. But his mind is still active. He speaks slowly with a breathy voice.

As we sit in the restaurant at the Filamona, Toalipi Lauti tells me about his life, a story that intersects with all the important events in Tuvaluan history over the past eighty years. He also tells me that he has had to change the way he grows pulaka. In the past, he would dig about thirty centimetres around the plant and then fertilise it using green leaves he had collected. But the bottom half of the edible roots of his pulaka have been rotting. This, Toalipi said, is because the seawater is now touching the pulaka roots. Now he has to raise his pulaka for it to remain healthy. “I knew that the sea water gets up here so I had to go higher,” he told me. “So instead of digging down a foot I had to go just nine inches down or less. And I found that an improvement.” The man who grows pulaka in the pit next to Toalipi’s had the same problem. So he raised his pulaka plants as well. “It’s a real thing,” Toalipi told me when I asked about the rising sea level. Others, however, reckon that the effects of climate change on Tuvalu, including a rising sea level, are a myth.

EXPATRIATES FLY IN and out of Tuvalu. Some stay for months or years. Most stay only for days. Many, it seems, simply make the short journey from the government-owned hotel to the neighbouring government offices, built with aid from Taiwan, and then back to the hotel. They are trainers and consultants and assessors from institutions great and small. They are people who are here to help. Then there are are researchers and academics – like me – who spend their hours milking Tuvaluans for information. All of them seem to have opinions about Tuvalu.

It’s a competitive business being an expat. It means that you must know a lot about a lot of things, one of which, when you are in Tuvalu, is Tuvalu. So there are bankers who are also, apparently, experts in the formation of atolls. There are seamen who are experts on taxation and fly-in lawyers who can tell you about the cultural intricacies of Tuvaluans. There are scientist-activists who know about refugee law, and film-makers turned philanthropists who, somewhat ironically, want to act as censors to ensure that what is written is consistent with their particular ideological bent. And everyone has an opinion about climate change. For some, it is a joke. A beat up. “Did you know that the US Peace Corps, so worried about the rising sea level, recommend life-jackets for volunteers who come to Tuvalu?” It is easy to get lost in the heady business of lunch and dinner between the hotel and the Filamona Lodge.

Nor is it only the expats dining at the hotel who doubt claims about Tuvalu’s experience of climate change. There are, of course, those who, despite the evidence, still dispute the existence of anthropogenic climate change. These people include the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Christopher C. Horner and the former president of the American Association of State Climatologists, Patrick J. Michaels, now a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute – a think-tank associated with big greenhouse gas polluters. They argue that rather than climate change damaging Tuvalu, locals are responsible for their own environmental destruction. But, while not specifically dealing with Tuvalu, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has taken a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to understanding the effects of climate change on small islands.

“Climate change and sea-level rises are not unique contributors to the extreme vulnerability of small islands,” write the Panel’s experts on small islands. “Other factors include socioeconomic conditions, natural resource and space limitations, and the impacts of natural hazards such as tsunami and storms. In the Pacific, vulnerability is also a function of internal and external political and economic processes which affect forms of social and economic organisation that are different from those practiced traditionally, as well as attempts to impose models of adaptation that have been developed for Western economies without sufficient thought as to their applicability to traditional island settings.”

John Connell, a geographer at Sydney University, has taken a sober yet sceptical position on the impact of climate change on Tuvalu. He has raised questions about the vested interests promoting a particular version of Tuvalu’s experience of rising sea levels due to climate change. Writing in 2003, before the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Connell accepted that a sea level rise due to climate change represents a real threat to low-lying Pacific island states like Tuvalu. But he casts doubt on whether the lived experience, as told by activists, sections of the media and the government of Tuvalu, is accurate. It is in the interests of each of these groups that a dramatic, doomsday story be told. For activists, the sinking nation highlights the need for changes in environmental policy and practice. It highlights the need to tackle the problem of global warming in particular, but also more generally for the world to take the environment more seriously. The media’s interest is in the “scoop” of disappearing islands, the story that will sell more newspapers, more television time, more advertising.

The Tuvaluan government also has an interest. It can use climate change as a means of financing development, leveraging aid and influencing migration outcomes by emphasising Tuvalu’s victimhood. At the same time it can shirk responsibility for the other, admittedly difficult, development tasks it currently faces, such as promoting economic development for the small, remote and relatively poor nation with few options for economic growth, and dealing with ongoing urban migration from the outlying islands to Funafuti.

Connell’s paper is a sober one. It may now be dated as new scientific evidence challenges some of his assumptions. But it is a reminder of the need “to transform those policies in metropolitan states that continue to contribute to global warming and to develop appropriate environmental management policies within atoll states.” It is also a reminder of the political and ideological interests that permeate the climate change debate. On one side are the “denialists,” those individuals and groups seeking to downplay the effects of climate change or the role of human activities in causing it. The denialists – whose intellectual centre is in United States–based petrochemical companies like Exxon-Mobil and the think-tanks they fund – have sought to cast doubt, in a strategy borrowed from the tobacco industry, on the scientific evidence of climate change and to discredit those advocating serious responses to the threat.

The Australian variety of denialists, who draw heavily on their American mentors, include groups such as the Lavoisier Group, the Centre for Independent Studies, the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), business moguls Hugh Morgan and Ray Evans, and commentators like the IPA’s John Roskam, the Australian’s Alan Wood, Miranda Devine from the Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, and Michael Duffy from ABC Radio National’s Counterpoint. The denialists seem to be motivated by a combination of economic interests and an ideology that views environmental concerns as not only opposed to economic growth but part of a search for meaning on the part of the those on the political left.

But it is not only the denialists, with their vast economic and political resources, who have obscured the reality of climate change and related factors. Environmental activists are not immune to exaggeration and distortion. The former US vice president, Al Gore, won an Academy Award and a Nobel Peace Prize for An Inconvenient Truth, an important film that brought to a global audience the threats posed by climate change. In one scene in An Inconvenient Truth we see images of melting land-based Antarctic ice. Gore tells us that, unlike sea-ice, when land-based ice melts it raises sea levels in the same way that a melting ice-block floating above the waterline in a glass raises the water level. As the narration continues Gore tells his viewers that this is the reason that “the citizens of these Pacific nations have all had to evacuate to New Zealand.” The image then shifts to an unspecified tropical island where the sea is inundating the land. We are not told what is happening. Is it a king tide? Is it a wave surge caused by a cyclone? Is it rising sea levels due to climate change?

There is no evidence that Pacific islanders are “evacuating” to New Zealand. Nor has there been a mass exodus from low-lying Pacific islands due to climate change. There is, and always has been, a lot of movement around the Pacific, including to New Zealand. Indeed, more Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans live in New Zealand than in their ancestral islands. But this migration is for economic, family and educational reasons. It has not been caused by climate change.

The denialists have also published the misconception that New Zealand is accepting people displaced by climate change. According to the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, “all 10,991 poor inhabitants of Tuvalu, an island [sic] in the middle of the Pacific Ocean… have pestered the New Zealand government into accepting each and every one of them as environmental refugees… The New Zealand government took the bait. The first evacuees are scheduled to arrive next year [that is, 2002].”

Similarly, an Australian Greens senator, Kerry Nettle, says that “New Zealand is effectively taking ‘climate refugees’ under its Pacific Access Category immigration program.” The category, established in 2001, replaced existing labour schemes and does not cover climate change. Each year 250 Tongans, seventy-five Tuvaluans and fifty people from Kiribati are chosen by ballot to come to New Zealand and apply for residence.

Even at a broader political and economic level, the Pacific Access Category is not linked to climate change. Enele Sopoaga, Tuvalu’s Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, told me that it is part of a general response to the economic development of the Pacific region. A number of the nations in the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, are promoting a free trade agreement, the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement. Although it recently ratified the agreement, Tuvalu had been reluctant to sign, saying that it would be disadvantaged unfairly; it has no real exports that will benefit from a free trade agreement, and in the event that the agreement takes off it will lose income it generates from the tariffs and duties it currently collects from imports. According to Enele Sopoaga, New Zealand’s decision to accept more Tuvaluan migrants is partly an attempt to address the losses Tuvalu would incur from any free trade agreement. He is keen for Australia to follow New Zealand’s lead and would be disappointed that Tuvaluans were excluded from the Pacific Islands temporary migration scheme announced by the Australian government in August 2008.

The Gore film is not the only example of a convenient overstatement designed, it would seem, for dramatic effect. In the course of researching this book, I came across other misinformation. I read, for example, that 3000 Tuvaluans have been dislocated already due to climate change. This figure is regurgitated by media across the world and on the internet by environmental groups and think-tanks. Three thousand people would be equivalent to almost a third of the population of Tuvalu and about three quarters of the population in the capital, Funafuti. This exodus has not occurred.

As far as I can tell, the claim has its roots in obfuscation and has been perpetuated by sloppiness. It rests on the conflation of two unrelated facts: one, that about 3000 Tuvaluans have emigrated, and, two, that because Tuvalu is particularly vulnerable to climate change, Tuvaluans face the prospect of displacement in the future. It is difficult to know who first conflated the two facts. But Friends of the Earth’s A Citizen’s Guide to Climate Refugees is a good example. A Citizen’s Guide quotes a former Tuvaluan prime minister saying that the effects of climate change are already dramatic and observable in Tuvalu. It then says, “Nearly 3000 Tuvaluans have already left their homelands.” Both statements are true. About 2500 Tuvaluans live in New Zealand and up to 500 are seafarers on international ships at any one time. But the wording of the publication is intended, it would seem, to make a link between climate change and migration, a link that, until now, does not exist in Tuvalu. It is then the inattentiveness of others – such as the world’s media or other environmental groups – who, without a careful enough reading of the two sentences, blur them. The sloppiness is reinforced when journalists re-hash the claims without further investigation or consideration.

There are also stories that Tuvalu has already gone under and that vast numbers of Tuvaluans have already had to flee. The misinformation about the fate of Tuvalu and Tuvaluans has become so bad that Christopher C. Horner – an observer who is far from independent given his link to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organisation funded by some of the US’s big greenhouse gas polluter-denialists – has labelled the phenomenon “Tuvalunacy.”

Of course, it is not as simple as that either. •

David Corlett is an adjunct research fellow at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research and an honorary research fellow at La Trobe University. This is an extract from Stormy Weather: The Challenge of Climate Change and Displacement, published this week in the Briefings series by UNSW Press.

Readers of Inside Story can purchase a copy of Stormy Weather for $13.56, a discount of 20 per cent on the usual cover price >

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One Comment

  1. Dr Mark Hayes added this comment on 27 November 2008 | Permalink

    On the face of this extract, Mr Corlett seems to have navigated quite successfully through the current Tuvalu story, but I’ve ordered his book to make sure. His descriptions of parts of Funafuti Atoll, and of even finding and climbing what I call “Mt Funafuti”, locally, David’s Drill or David’s Hole, are accurate. In many respects, at least on the above extract, he’s following the reportage I have done there in 2002, 2004, and 2006. I look forward to reading the rest of his commentary on the Tuvalu story.

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