New Atlantis: the vanishing of Tuvalu

November 24, 2023 0 Comments

In the daily TV quiz show Pointless, Tuvalu is a regularly pointless answer in ‘countries of the world’ rounds.  Even people who’ve heard of it would find it difficult to point to where it is with any accuracy on a map of the Pacific (latitude 10° south, longitude 176°180°).  It consists of three reef islands and six atolls, and has a population of just over 10,000 people.

Within a hundred years or so, it’s quite likely that Tuvalu will score not zero out of 100 (the ideal score on Pointless), but 100 out of 100 (wrong, and likely to lead to expulsion).  The reason is simple.  Tuvalu will no longer exist.  It will have disappeared beneath the waves of the ocean, to become a folk memory, an imaginary land, a new Atlantis.

At its highest point Tuvalu is just 4.6 metres (15 feet) above sea level.  The latest estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is that global mean sea levels will rise by up to 1.1 metres by the end of this century.  This figure is conservative and is based on the ‘most likely’ rather than the worst scenarios.  Some scientists believe the rise, which will accelerate, could amount to three metres by 2100.  The cause, says the IPCC, is ‘anthropogenic’.  That is, we humans are responsible.

So unless there’s a miraculous change in trends, and despite some measures to protect settlements from future sea incursion, Tuvalu will cease to be – possibly within the lifetimes of people born today.  Tuvaluans know this.  The sea has already gnawed away at some coastal settlements, and a recent NASA study showed that the rate of increase in sea level around Tuvalu is 1.5 times the global average.  For the Cop26 meeting in Glasgow in 2021 Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu, recorded a speech standing knee-deep in sea water to bring home to delegates the urgency of his country’s predicament.

A headline about Tuvalu that caught my eye last week said ‘Stay or go?’  The article concerned efforts by Tuvaluans to plan for new lives away from their islands.  What was most interesting was that the Australian government has recently signed a treaty with Tuvalu, under which citizens of Tuvalu will be able to relocate to Australia, at a rate of up to 280 a year, with the right to live, study and work there.

The scheme is far from perfect, and the details are still undecided.  Tuvalu is a very poor country, and many of its people will be unable to afford the flight to Australia. The disappearance of its wealthier inhabitants could make life still harder for those who remain.  But the fact that Australia, under previous governments highly resistant to immigration, has acted in response to a pressing need, is remarkable in itself.

Tuvalu, though, is a small nation.  Will long-sighted and pragmatic ‘solutions’ be so easy to find in the case of larger populations?  The Maldives (2.4m above sea level, population 521,000), Mauritius (population 1.2m) and other Pacific countries are also at risk from sea level change, while much larger countries, like Bangladesh (169m population), a quarter of whose land is little more than two metres above sea level, could suffer massive dislocation and flight in future.  How will the world cope with the massive population movements that large rises in sea level will cause?

If the countries mentioned so far seem far away and of little consequence, take a look at the interactive map produced by the independent science group Climate Central, which shows which areas of the UK would be flooded following a given rise in sea level.  A rise of one metre above the high tide level could mean the loss of huge areas of eastern England (including London), not to speak of many low-lying coastal fringes of Wales (including Cardiff).

The news about the Tuvalu-Australia treaty received little media attention, but no doubt it’s the first of many similar stories in future.  The treaty might seem at first glance to reflect well on the generous instincts of the Australian government.  But since it’s rich countries (and the richer citizens who inhabit them) who bear the chief responsibility for the global warming causing sea level change, should not the agreement be seen as a reparation or act of compensation rather than as a charitable act?

Western impacts on Pacific countries, of course, have a long history.  In his ‘utopian’ fiction New Atlantis: a worke unfinished, published posthumously in 1627, Francis Bacon imagined island nations appearing for the first time to explorers setting out from Peru:

And it came to pass that the next day about evening we saw within a kenning [a distance within human sight, around 20 miles] before us, towards the north, as it were thick clouds, which did put us in some hope of land; knowing how that part of the South Sea was utterly unknown; and might have islands, or continents, that hitherto were not come to light. Wherefore we bent our course thither, where we saw the appearance of land, all that night; and in the dawning of the next day, we might plainly discern that it was a land; flat to our sight, and full of boscage; which made it show the more dark. 

Five centuries on, their ‘worke unfinished’, many Pacific islands are likely to disappear from view, for ever.

Leave a Reply