Author: Colette Mortreux, University of Melbourne
In response to the climate crisis, Tuvalu’s Minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Simon Kofe, announced at COP27 the country’s plan to become the world’s first digital nation. This bold and unprecedented project aims to digitise the history and cultural practices of Tuvalu as a precaution against its people losing their homeland to climate change.
The Digital Nation project is already underway, digitising records of Tuvalu’s islets, birds and fish species, traditional songs, recipes, language and even the scores of the national volleyball team. At its most ambitious, the project speculates that the government could join the metaverse and be administered virtually, securing sovereignty and cultural continuity despite rising sea levels.
Seen from afar, one could be forgiven for interpreting this project as acceptance that becoming uninhabitable is a fait accompli for Tuvalu. But this is far from the case. Tuvalu continues to fight against climate change and the Digital Nation project should be seen as one among many such strategies.
Despite weak international emissions reduction commitments and delays in global adaptation funding, Tuvalu is undergoing significant adaptations to adjust to the impacts of climate change.
In 2015, a major land reclamation project was undertaken in the capital Funafuti to increase its area by more than six hectares.Nearby, the ‘borrow pits’— remnants from US military excavations during the Second World War — have been filled in, significantly reducing the climate vulnerability of affected households. Elsewhere on Fongafale, the lagoon has been dredged to rebuild an eroded beach. Outside of the capital, mangroves have been planted in Nukulaelae to protect against coastal erosion and a new and improved sea wall has been built in Nukufetau.
These are not the actions of a country reconciled to displacement as a result of climate change. These are the actions of a country determined to safeguard its future as best as it can, while simultaneously protecting against the worst-case scenario.
As a concept, the Digital Nation project is strong. It demonstrates the urgency of the climate crisis to the world. That a country would even be at the point of considering a virtual existence is shocking for many. The issue puts the values of place and people at the centre of the discussion. It begs us to ask, what would we want to preserve if we were in the same position as Tuvalu?
In step with the Tuvaluan government’s shift to values-based diplomacy, the project highlights Tuvaluan values of communal living systems (olaga fakafenua), shared responsibility (kaitasi), and being a good neighbour (fale-pili) to the international stage. While international climate change negotiations continue to fall short, other countries could learn a lot from Tuvalu.
But where the concept of Digital Nation is strong, the messaging could be more nuanced. There are three audiences that the Tuvaluan government needs to balance: international leaders who need to commit to emissions reductions, international donors who need to invest in Tuvalu and Tuvaluans who need to feel hopeful and prepared for their future. It is difficult to communicate effectively with one single message to all of these audiences.
On the one hand, the government’s messaging of Digital Nation demonstrates to international leaders the urgency of emissions reductions by referring to the ‘imminent disappearance’ of Tuvaluan islands. But in doing so, it risks sending a message to donors that investing in Tuvalu is not worth the risk and it sends a message to citizens that there is little hope for Tuvalu’s future.
There is a window of opportunity to help maintain a good life in Tuvalu over the next few decades, but it requires investment. One study suggests that is has been difficult to establish foreign investment in rainwater tanks due to donor perceptions of Tuvalu’s climate vulnerability. This is discouraging, particularly given that climate projections suggest that people will likely still be able to inhabit Tuvalu for the next few decades and that infrastructure investments are seldom made to last for more than 20 years.
Many want to continue living in Tuvalu for as long as they can. Indeed, some older Tuvaluans have said they would rather die in their homeland than relocate. Early impressions from people in Tuvalu about the Digital National project appear mixed. Some are not aware of the project at all, others are curious about how it will transpire, and some have reservations. One local related that ‘if God said Tuvalu is not going to disappear then let it be by faith. Having such a project is saying to ourselves that we are sinking’.
Tuvalu remains in the public eye and is likely to continue to do so as the climate crisis unfolds. This places the Tuvalu’s government in an unusual yet delicate position of influence. As Digital Nation progresses — and with citizen consultations earmarked — there is an opportunity for this project to evolve in ways that assure potential donors and space for locals to feel hopeful about their collective future in Tuvalu.
Colette Mortreux is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Research Fellow in Climate Change Adaption at the University of Melbourne.