What if your country disappeared? Nation mulls digital existence as sea waters rise

A woman bathes a child in the lagoon on Nov. 28, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu. The low-lying South Pacific island nation of about 12,000 people has been classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’ to climate change by the United Nations Development Programme.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images - image credit)
A woman bathes a child in the lagoon on Nov. 28, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu. The low-lying South Pacific island nation of about 12,000 people has been classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’ to climate change by the United Nations Development Programme. (Mario Tama/Getty Images - image credit)

A country is made up of so many elements — land, people, nature, culture, history. But what happens when, one by one, those things disappear? How does a country continue its existence then?

Those are the questions being asked by leaders of the small South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, but they're also attempting to find innovative answers. The country has announced they're making moves to seek legal protections for a nation that might cease to exist in any traditional sense, and they're also turning to the metaverse to try and preserve the pieces of the country that are the most important, before time runs out.

Last year, Simon Kofe, Tuvalu's Minister of Foreign Affairs, stood hip-deep in the water off the country's shore. In a speech that went viral, he implored world leaders to take radical action at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow for the sake of his country of about 12,000 people.

"Climate change and sea level rise are deadly and existential threats to Tuvalu," he said.

William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

'Piece by piece we'll preserve our country'

This year, Tuvalu's leaders pushed the issue even further. In a new video released during the COP27 conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Kofe addressed viewers once again from the shores of one of Tuvalu's nine islands, which are about midway between Australia and Hawaii in the South Pacific Ocean.

If the world continues on the path to warm by 3 C, as it is currently on track to, this island will be the first to disappear, he said. He added the entire country is forecast to be under water from sea level rise this century.

"Since COP26, the world has not acted and so we in the Pacific have had to act," Kofe said.

"As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world's first digital nation. Our land, our ocean, our culture, are the most precious assets of our people. And to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we'll move them to the cloud."

Kofe said administrative and governance systems would be moved online so that they would remain uninterrupted. But what exactly what a digital nation would look like is somewhat unclear.

WATCH |  Simon Kofe, Tuvalu's Minister of Foreign Affairs, on turning to the metaverse:

It will start with the creation of a digital twin, according to Nick Kelly and Marcus Foth of Queensland University of Technology. The researchers describe in an article on The Conversation that the metaverse will use both augmented and virtual reality to replicate Tuvalu and try to preserve the island nation's culture.

"Technologically, it's already easy enough to create beautiful, immersive and richly rendered recreations of Tuvalu's territory. Moreover, thousands of different online communities and 3D worlds demonstrate it's possible to have entirely virtual interactive spaces that can maintain their own culture," the article reads.

As Kofe speaks in the pre-recorded video, the images of Tuvalu's flags begin to pixelate and freeze. Rocks disappear and are moved around on the beach, creative editing techniques that bring home the urgency of this project as two-dimensional images like this could soon be all that remain of the country.

"Islands like this one won't survive rapid temperature increases," Kofe said. "So we'll recreate them virtually. Piece by piece we'll preserve our country, provide solace to our people and remind our children and our grandchildren what our home once was."

Protections for kin and country

Digitally preserving the country is just one part of the national project called Future Now. The second arm of the national strategy is trying to create a legal framework by which the country can maintain its sovereignty even if the entire nation becomes submerged.

"We would be made stateless, landless," said Tuvalu's Minister of Finance Seve Paeniu at the COP27 conference. "Ultimately [we are seeking] a global solution, a settlement or an agreement within the international governance architecture to recognize and give legal protection of the sovereignty of Tuvalu."

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Paeniu said the country is going about this by seeking heritage site status from UNESCO.

"We have a heritage project, a compilation of our rich culture, our uniqueness, our identity to advocate and promote for the preservation of our cultural heritage, then we will use that compilation to apply," he said. "To preserve our sovereignty, our dignity, our identity, regardless of the sea level rising."

Tuvalu is not the sole nation facing this threat. The Central Pacific nation of Kiribati purchased land in Fiji five years ago to serve as a climate refuge. This area is currently being developed into an agricultural project with the help of the Chinese government, according to reporting by The Guardian.

But whether or not international legal frameworks are prepared for questions of this nature with regard to sovereignty, or with regard to the people who will be displaced, remains to be seen.

In 2013, a man from Kiribati, Ioane Teitiota, and his wife fled the country for New Zealand. When they landed they are believed to be the first people to have claimed asylum as climate refugees. But their claim was rejected and they were ordered to be deported on the basis that climate change is not currently recognized as grounds for claiming refugee status. On appeal this decision was upheld.

Last year, the Environmental Justice Foundation published a report showing many of the holes that exist. In the case of Teitiota, the UN's Human Rights Committee has said that forcibly returning a person to their country if their life is threatened due to risks posed by climate change, could go against international agreements.

Research from The World Bank Group estimates that by 2050, approximately 216 million people will be displaced by climate change's impacts. Migration is not an issue addressed in the COP27 conference agreement drafts.

Thomas Hartwell/The Associated Press
Thomas Hartwell/The Associated Press

There are limits to adaptation

Tuvalu's leaders have continued applying pressure on Western leaders to provide funding for adaptation to try and push off the worst impacts to the country, but there are limits to how much it can do, said Paeniu.

"Sea level is rising faster — making our country uninhabitable — than what we could adapt to," he said.

This echoes the concerns voiced by many researchers at the COP27 climate conference that adaptation is being relied on too heavily to address climate change, with not enough focus being placed on mitigating emissions.

"The primary strategy right now for us is to preserve our islands," Kofe told Reuters. "No Tuvaluan wants to leave our islands and to relocate."

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images