Low-lying atoll nations struggle between dual fetishized imaginaries. On the one hand, they are associated with (colonial) tropical oases: coconut palms swaying in the breeze, white sand beaches that stretch for miles, smooth, cyan-blue lagoons filled with dream-like corals. On the other, more recently, they are represented as “sinking islands”; entire nations which risk submersion as sea levels rise.
Today, when the atoll archipelago states of Tuvalu or Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bas) make headlines, the story is more than likely one of rising seas and ‘climate refugees’. The re-framing of climate vulnerability into a one-liner image is not unique to atoll-states; think polar bears on lonely icebergs, or mega-city dwellers paddling through flooded streets. However, this over-simplification of a complex and interconnected issue is dangerous. Re-constructed as climate refugees, atoll-dwellers have no choice but to flee. And understood as a one-dimensional issue environmental vulnerabilities such as sea level rise invite one-dimensional solutions, from the likes of engineers, donors, technocrats, and politicians. The leaders of atoll nations have thus framed their response to climate change against this fetishized understanding of climate risk, as something either to fight (Tuvalu) or to flee (Kiribati). In order to broaden the way that climate change is understood — and thus dealt with — in atoll nations, this essay attempts to unpack (and re-politicize) the “climate refugee” narrative emerging in regards to Tuvalu and Kiribati, and explore the ways these two nations are leveraging their climate-changed imaginaries.
Unstable Contexts ///
Coral atolls are living geographies, formed by coral reefs that form on the rim of subsiding volcanoes. As corals grow and die in typical/tropical life cycles, they produce debris that is accumulated into low sandbars which curve as a band of small islets around a lagoon, encircling the sunken volcanic cone. Over time these sandbars capture seeds from migrating birds and floating
coconuts, eventually accruing vegetation. Their morphologies are dynamic, in the way that all geographies are, but at an accelerated pace. Local hydrodynamics constantly shift sandy coastlines, and storm events can easily create or decimate small islets. Historically, the inhabitants of coral atolls compensated with a similar mobility, moving between islands when vegetation was stripped or when the delicate freshwater lens below the atoll ran dry. Migration was not only a form of adaptation; it was a way of life. Today’s atoll-dwellers face a very different situation: paralyzed by the geopolitics of the nation-state and colonially-imposed private property systems, they find themselves stranded on atolls whose rate of change is further amplified by rising seas.
Sea level rise alone does not imply a death sentence for atolls. Since the last glacial maximum, around 21,000 years ago, atolls have survived ice-melts of up to 1 meter per year. Surrounding coral reefs grew upwards towards the light as sea levels rose, increasing the rate of sediment production and the base material upon which atolls are formed. In 2010, two geomorphologists from New Zealand published a paper illustrating this point, entitled “The dynamic response of reef islands to sea-level rise: Evidence from multi-decadal analysis of island change in the Central Pacific.” An analysis of atolls (using satellite photographs) over the last several decades showed that on average these islands had actually grown in area. Following the peer-reviewed publication, a slew of news articles proclaimed that atolls were not sinking, they were growing! This has become fodder for the view that atolls themselves can adapt- a perspective I heard reiterated on Funafuti atoll in Tuvalu, even as King Tides were turning half of the capital into swamp.
However (and as always), this scientific data must be understood in the context of lived realities. While atolls as geographic formations might persist with sea level rise, they become increasingly unstable in the process. Inhabiting a growing, morphing, moving atoll would be a complex endeavor, particularly in a post-colonial nation transformed by high-ground concepts of development; freshwater, agriculture, and stable ground to inhabit are all under threat. Authors Webb and Kench note that Cyclone Bebe, which hit Tuvalu in 1972, actually increased the area of Funafuti by 10%. What they fail to note is that the event killed 7 people, and destroyed 90% of the housing stock in the capital. Perhaps there will be more ground, but will anyone be able to survive upon it? Furthermore, additional complications from climate change including increasing sea surface temperature and coral bleaching may decimate the biologies on which these geographies rely. Already, parts of both Tuvalu and Kiribati have waters nearing 29°Celsius, the maximum temperature at which most reefs can survive.
For the leaders of atoll nations, who represent the plight of their populations on a global stage, the conversation rarely seems to address this level of complexity. With the extreme vulnerability these atolls face, partial truths could lead to massive dangers: specifically, inappropriate or incomplete planning for vulnerable futures. Globally, there are five nations in the world which consist entirely of coral atolls, rising at most a few meters above sea level. Four of these atoll-states are in the Pacific: Tuvalu, Tokelau, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands, while the Maldives lies to the Southwest tip of the Indian subcontinent. You might know their names from listicles such as “5 Countries that Won’t Exist at the End of the 21st Century.” As the global presence of these tiny islands rises with increasing awareness of climate risks, these leaders have established firm positions relative to climate change displacement. As a result of their lack of geopolitical associations with high-ground nations (and associated exit strategies), Tuvalu and Kiribati in particular have become primary voices in the climate refugee imaginary.
Climate Change as Narrative in Tuvalu and Kiribati ///
Prior to European contact beginning in the 18th century, Tuvalu and Kiribati were clan-based and fluid communities with strong histories of cross-oceanic migration and trade. The I-Kiribati are descended from Indonesian populations and are considered part of Micronesia, while Tuvaluans originate from Lapitian peoples and are in the region of Polynesia. Both sets of archipelagos (Kiribati is composed of several including the Gilbert Islands, Line Islands, and Phoenix Group) were settled around 2,000 years ago. In spite of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic distinctness, British colonizers lumped the two pre-nations together for administrative convenience, dubbing them the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (indicating Kiribati and Tuvalu respectively) following their European “discoverers.” Post-colonial, post-christianized Tuvalu and Kiribati share similar government structures and similar environmental vulnerabilities relative to their atoll geographies.
Comparing climate-induced migration discourses illustrates the difficulty of applying narrow sound-bite ready narratives to a deeply complex enviro-socio-political issue. The positions of Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga and President Anote Tong help to tease out this nuanced landscape of media, geopolitics, and cultural livelihoods. The narrative-politics of these leaders operate as savvy maneuvers across an unstable context. Tuvalu’s current Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga has firmly rejected the concept of the “sinking island,” instead promoting the nation’s role as a symbol towards CO2 mitigation. At the UN Climate Summit in New York in 2015, Sopoaga pleads with a global audience:
“It is now time to invest in the future of this planet and to divest ourselves from the need to pollute our atmosphere… Let’s make the Paris protocol, an agreement that will change our world and save Tuvalu. For if we save Tuvalu, we will save the world”
Tuvalu’s vulnerability becomes a lever for encouraging emission reductions, even though by many estimates the nation will become uninhabitable even if carbon emissions stopped now (an unlikely scenario in any case). But even if Tuvalu cannot prevent its own demise, this attitude does represent a claiming of agency over the future of the tiny nation. Sopoaga’s position is taken a step further by Tuvalu’s U.N representative Aunese Makoi Simati when he eliminates planned migration from the conversation: “We may have a smaller population than other countries, but it is our sovereign right to remain where we are. We consider this a human right […] That is why I think the government is not pushing to buy lands — it is a means to keep our sovereignty” (quoted in an interview with Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs). Sopoaga’s predecessor, Willy Telavi — who I met by chance while waiting for a plane in Funafuti’s community-pavilion-cum-departure-lounge — has similarly likened migration to a loss of sovereignty.
Sopoaga’s public narrative surrounding climate risk is one of mitigation as salvation, or even migration as annihilation. Tuvalu’s leadership leverages its position of vulnerability to disincentivize the ongoing production of greenhouse gases, “saving Tuvalu” in order to “save the world.” Like Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands have set a similar stance, self-identifying as a kind of canary in the fish tank. Marshallese minister Tony de Brum (in an interview with Radio New Zealand) takes the issue even beyond sovereignty to liken climate change to the ending of civilizations: “Displacement of populations and destruction of cultural language and tradition is equivalent in our minds to genocide.”
When culture is rooted in place, the destruction of place can eviscerate a culture. These statements are powerful, and it is no wonder that atoll leaders now make a kind of global circuit speaking out against the off-gassing of larger and more powerful states. And while there may seem to be a naiveté of these tiny nations attempting to stop climate change, taking on the development-oriented capitalist world as we know it, perhaps Sopoaga’s narratives are more powerful for their attempt to reclaim agency over Tuvaluan futures, rejecting the notion that American cars and Chinese coal plants thousands of miles away can destroy their entire society.
In contrast to the Tuvaluan rejection of migration, Anote Tong, president of Kiribati from 2003-2016, instead framed his vision for the future as one of “migration with dignity,” which is also the title of a national campaign to increase education and training so that I-Kiribati can pursue migration as a self-determined process. He also organized the purchase of 20 square kilometers of land on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s biggest island, in 2014. While the ‘official’ intended use of this land is for food production, it symbolically represents a first step towards planned resettlement; a clear acknowledgement that Kiribati is likely to become uninhabitable in the near future. As Tong told the AP in 2014 (as quoted in the Guardian), “we would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it.” Thus Tong acknowledges mass resettlement as an option in addition to the planned diaspora.
Of course, no land is empty, and Kiribati’s purchase in Fiji came with its own set of complications. The land was purchased for USD $8 million from the Church of England, which kept the land for the housing of Anglican Solomon Island migrants. These former plantation workers now fear displacement if and when an influx of I-Kiribati occurs. The I-Kiribati embrace of migration as adaptation has not been universal; following the 2014 purchase of land in Fiji, Teburoro Tito, Tong’s presidential predecessor told the AP: “The scientists tell us that our reefs are healthy and can grow and rise with the sea level, so there is absolutely no need to buy land in Fiji or anywhere else.” He is, of course, citing the Webb and Kench research discussed above. In response to criticisms, Tong has insisted on the importance of migration in national adaptation policy (as quoted in an interview with Radio Australia): “It’s not a question of surrendering — I think it’s a case of being practical in the face of the limited choices that we have.”
Attitudes towards migration/adaptation likely draw on the two nations’ histories of resettlement. Beginning in 1945, the entire population of Banaba island in Kiribati was forcibly evacuated by the British to the Fijian island of Rabi, making way for destructive phosphate mining on their home island. The Banabans struggled with decades of substandard housing, not to mention the tragedy of forcible eviction from their homeland, but in 2005 were granted Fijian citizenship and now exist in a zone of semi-autonomy, retaining Kiribati passports and political representation. In contrast, the decision of a group of Tuvaluans from the atoll of Vaitupu to purchase the island of Kioa, Fiji as an extended homeland (using profits from their occupation during world war two as well, ironically, as remittances from phosphate mining in sites including Banaba) was self-determined, a response to concerns regarding overpopulation on the atoll. Migration began in the 1940s, but in spite of self-planning the Kioa-Vaitupuans found adapting to the mountainous, volcanic landscape difficult; familiar crops wouldn’t grow, familiar fish were scarce, and the new migrants felt entirely isolated, unable to communicate with new Fijian neighbors. Kioans still retain their Tuvaluan identities and language though they too were granted Fijian citizenship in 2005.
These histories suggest that unplanned migration can be devastating, providing support for the Kiribati migration as adaptation policy. By controlling the process of migration, Tong’s administration might be able to avoid the Rabi islanders’ darker struggles. However, even planned migration can end in difficulty, fueling a symbolic mitigation or devastation approach in Tuvalu. Whatever official discourses exist, atoll denizens are already (or as always) on the move. According to a recent UN survey entitled “Climate Change and Migration in the Pacific: Links, attitudes, and future scenarios in Nauru, Tuvalu, and Kiribati”, over 70% of respondents in both nations believe that migration is likely to become necessary if climate change continues. In the last 10 years, 15% of Tuvaluans but less than 2% of I-Kiribati had migrated internationally, in striking contrast to Tong’s migration as adaptation policy. With a ten-fold larger population, higher population growth, and lower global mobility, perhaps a migration-oriented policy is more essential for Kiribati; the UN report refers to it as an “enclave of less mobility” and further emphasizes that atoll-dwellers could become “‘trapped’ by worsening environmental conditions.” It is likely intentional that the term “climate refugee” remains absent from the report.
Rejecting the “Climate Refugee” Narrative ///
The climate refugee, as an emerging (media) construct, in fact has no legal standing. The multi-factorial nature of migration decisions was apparent in a series of recent cases vaunted by the media as “the world’ first climate refugees.” In fact, ‘climate refugee’ is not an official refugee status. The UNHCR 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a “refugee” as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Climate refugee claims have either been rejected based on the lack of a legal basis for climate refugee status, or have been accepted because the claimant typically identifies climate amongst a slew of other reasons for migration. In the case of one of these ‘first climate refugees’ hailed in the global media, a Tuvaluan family seeking residence in Auckland, their petition was accepted because they already had multi-generational familial ties to New Zealand.
Many Pacific islanders, (as well as environmental migration scholars) reject the designation forthright, as an imposition of outside constructs onto local identities. The tag “climate refugee” naturalizes the potential of a violent displacement imposed by the heaving factories of the olig-anthropocene. It eliminates potentials of local negotiation and contestation of the givens of globalization. While the individual statements and stories of atoll nation representatives perhaps do not satisfactorily de-construct this imposed condition on their own, it is in fact the contestation across and between these discourses that re-politicizes (in the healthy sense of returning political dialogue to the public sphere) the futures of vulnerable atoll-dwellers.
What the discourses of both Tuvalu and Kiribati reveal most clearly is a rejection of the fetishized construct of the “climate refugee.” While these atoll-dwellers are willing to concede themselves as symbols and spokespersons of climate risk, they refuse to revoke their agency as individuals and as nations in the process. For Tuvalu, this comes in the form of spurning even the possibility of displacement and associated destruction of culture and sovereignty, even if they cannot control the rising tides. In Kiribati, desire for self-determination translates to attempting control over migration processes, even when accepting migration itself as a necessary burden. Or, perhaps it is Tuvalu’s favorable migration agreements with other nations (in particular New Zealand) that allows Sopoaga to hold up his fist and reject jumping ship, declaring “We must work together to save the world!”
Within the framework of narrow media narratives of the climate refugee, it has been difficult for atoll-dwellers to develop alternative futures for their archipelagos. That this narrative operates largely in the framework of Western platforms of media and geopolitics is further problematic, positioning atoll states as tiny pawns in a global narrative in spite of their rich history of local, mobile adaptations. In our age of anthropogenic climate change it is impossible to deny that Tuvaluans and I-Kiribati are victims of carbon giants. However, characterizing atoll-dwellers solely as victims, solely as ‘climate refugees’ confuses one type of victimization (impacted by environmental change, and complicated by contemporary passport politics) with another (how atoll denizens choose to respond to that change). It further makes the conversation about the victims, not the colonial and post-colonial perpetrators of this crisis. The actions of Oceanic leaders and citizens have demonstrated that there is more than one possible response at multiple levels, and that points of leverage still exist. It is still possible for atoll-dwellers to imagine futures not as sinking refugees, but as rising agents of climate-changed futures.