The world's fourth-smallest nation is asking the world for help as rising seal levels caused by climate change threaten to swallow the island whole. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, a Pacific island nation of about 10,000 people, arrived in Europe this week to ask world leaders to commit to keep the planet cooler–and his nation above the waves.
The current global agreement is to keep the increase in global temperature to two degrees by curbing carbon dioxide emissions. Right now, the bulk of the world's emissions come from China, the U.S., India, and Russia. Tuvalu, by contrast, emits a negligible amount, and aims to be completely carbon-neutral by 2020.
But even if we–the heaviest emitters–stick to those non-binding agreements, would it be enough to save Tuvalu, and other small Pacific island nations facing a similar future?
We may be able to prolong their viability for people to continue living on them by several decades, but we probably can't save them altogether, says Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Gerrard has studied Kiribati, near Papua New Guinea, in particular, but says the same principles are applicable to Tuvalu: At its highest point, Tuvalu is currently 15 feet above sea level. That means its farm land and fresh water supply is threatened by rising salty sea water, apart from the loss of land as it gets submerged under the ocean.
"The rate of greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades will have an important bearing on how long these islands remain habitable. But I think it may be too late to save them forever. We can prolong their survival by decades if there are serious enough reductions in greenhouse gas emissions," Gerrard told Fusion.
The latest round of international climate talks are being held in Paris in November. Before the summit, nations have been asked to submit their voluntary commitments to cut emissions. A few weeks ago, the U.S. government announced that the U.S. will aim to get 20 percent of its power from renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power, within 15 years; they have also committed to reduce emissions by 26 percent of the current rate within 10 years.
"[The plans] are a whole lot stronger than what we had under Bush. Obama is doing what he can under existing legal authority but Congress is fighting him at every step," Gerrard said, adding that there have been no significant reforms to EPA statutes in relation to climate change since 1990. "We're dealing with a quarter century of political paralysis…they will yield reductions but not enough, not what we need."
At the talks, Tuvalu's Prime Minister Enele Spoaga will be arguing for more drastic reductions in emissions, a 1.5 degree cap on warming, as well as help for the people of Tuvalu to adapt as best they can to harsher living conditions. Eventually, the only answer may be for the island's inhabitants to migrate to another country.
But Gerrard says the only island nation openly exploring that option is Kiribati. Right now, he says, their plan is to first buy land in Fiji as a resource to produce crops–something that's becoming increasingly difficult for them at home.
The Marshall Islands, Palao, and the Federated States of Micronesia, on the other hand, have open paths to immigration in the U.S., owing to agreements made when the Americans tested nuclear weapons on the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in the 1950s. Many residents, especially from the Marshall Islands, have already moved to the U.S. over the past two decades.
Spoaga argues that saving his nation is one step on the path to preventing global disaster.
“We need to collaborate as one human face to save human kind. To make an agreement in Paris in December a meaningful one. We are told that even 2 degrees global warming is too dangerous as it would mean that Tuvalu would disappear under the water," he told the Brussels Times. "Yes we can move the Tuvalu inhabitants to other peoples’ lands but it will not stop climate change. We need to save Tuvalu to save the world.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article said "There have been no significant reforms to EPA regulations in relation to climate change since 1990." There have been reforms to regulations, which are adopted independently by the EPA, but not to statutes, which require Congressional approval.