Australia’s deal with Tuvalu is the first in the world to relocate a population stranded by rising sea levels, and highlights the cynicism of policy that avoids addressing the causes of climate change. By Mike Seccombe.

The art of the Tuvalu deal

A woman with grey hair stands in crystal blue water with her hands covering her face.
Tuvaluan woman Suega Apelu stands in the lagoon of the country’s capital, Funafuti.
Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images

At first blush, the big, frigid island of Greenland and the tiny tropical nation of Tuvalu might not seem to have much in common, but in a couple of major ways they do.

For one, they are both disproportionately affected by climate change. Greenland’s ice sheet is turning to water at an ever-increasing rate. Some scientific estimates suggest it could melt away entirely if the globe warms by just 1.6 degrees above pre-industrial levels – it already has warmed by about 1.1 degrees – which would raise sea levels by seven metres.

At its highest point, Tuvalu is just 4.6 metres above the current sea level, so Greenland’s future is of vital importance to the 11,200 Tuvaluans.

A second point of commonality is that both places are of great geostrategic importance to large and powerful neighbouring countries.

The United States has long worried that Greenland, with its 44,000 kilometres of coastline, is something of a security black hole. Russian and Chinese vessels have repeatedly turned up unannounced in its fjords. It also has substantial mineral resources, including vital rare-earth elements, the production and refining of which are dominated by China.

So in mid-2019, then president Donald Trump came up with a couple of possible solutions. America could buy Greenland, which is an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark inhabited by about 56,000 people. Alternatively, a swap could be arranged: Puerto Rico for Greenland.

When Denmark refused, Trump petulantly cancelled a scheduled visit.

But he can at least be given credit for being open about his motivations. There was no false altruism about it. “Essentially, it’s a large real estate deal,” Trump said – considerations such as the Greenlanders’ national sovereignty be damned.

Tuvalu’s great and powerful neighbour, Australia, was less upfront about the deal stitched up last week between the two nations, called the Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union.

The name, we were told in a joint statement by prime ministers Anthony Albanese and Kausea Natano, refers to the Tuvaluan word for “the traditional values of good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect”.

The word “sovereignty” appeared in the statement over and over again. Indeed, it said, “Respect and support for each other’s sovereignty lies at the heart of our Falepili Union.”

The detail of the treaty itself, however, indicated it would impinge significantly on Tuvalu’s sovereignty as usually defined – that is, the ultimate authority of a nation state to determine its own affairs. It reads : “Tuvalu shall mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters. Such matters include but are not limited to defence, policing, border protection, cyber security and critical infrastructure, including ports, telecommunications and energy infrastructure.”

This provision of the treaty is widely interpreted as meaning the tiny nation would need Australia’s agreement before it could deal with other countries in any of the listed areas. This is likely relevant to one nation in particular: China.

Concerns in Australia and the United States about Chinese efforts to increase its influence in the Pacific have been growing for years and were heightened dramatically after Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a security pact with China on March 30 last year.

Gaining effective veto power over Tuvalu’s foreign relations was clearly of primary importance to Australia, but it was not the major concern for Tuvalu – nor, for that matter, for the 15 other smaller nations in the Pacific Islands Forum. For them, the big issue is climate change.

The climate crisis is global of course, but it is a particularly urgent concern for Pacific nations. The Sixth Assessment Report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2021 found more than three billion people were living in highly vulnerable areas of the world, with fast-increasing numbers forced to relocate.

To date, the vast majority of the displaced have moved elsewhere within their own countries. But in the case of Pacific states that stand only a few metres above sea level, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, internal migration is not an option. They could – and given the current trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions, likely will – vanish beneath the waves within a few generations. The threat is literally existential.

Climate change threatens all Pacific states, even where there is an option to move to higher ground. In Fiji, for example, the government has identified more than 800 communities at risk and 48 villages have been deemed to require partial or full relocation because of climate impacts.

The perils of global heating are not limited to sea-level rise; they also include more intense cyclones and storms, changes in rainfall patterns and damage to the marine environment due to hotter seas.

Which brings us back to the Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union, announced after the conclusion of last week’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands. Australia promised more assistance to cope with rising seas, including the expansion of the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project, which aims to increase the area of the capital, Funafuti, by reclaiming land.

“This project will expand Funafuti’s land by around six per cent – creating vital space for new housing and essential services for Tuvaluans, and enabling people to remain living in Tuvalu in the face of sea-level rise,” said the prime ministers’ joint statement.

The treaty recommitted Australia to providing aid and assistance in response to natural disasters, such as cyclones, as well as any “public health emergency of international concern” and “military aggression against Tuvalu”.

Most notably, it also provided for what it called “a special human mobility pathway” allowing Tuvaluans to “access” Australia.

As Albanese elaborated at a joint media conference with Natano, this provides for up to 280 Tuvaluans to migrate to Australia per year. The deal will allow them not only to live, study and work in Australia but also give them access to education, health, income and family support on arrival.

Albanese called it “the most significant agreement between Australia and a Pacific island nation ever”.

Actually, it is more than that. It is, as noted in a statement from UNSW Sydney’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, the world’s first bilateral agreement specifically on climate mobility. More such agreements are expected to follow.

“I gather this came as a massive surprise to everybody,” says Kaldor Centre director Professor Jane McAdam.

While most attention was focused on the Tuvalu deal, she says, another major development at the forum meeting was downplayed. That was the endorsement of something called the Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility.

“We were commissioned to do the initial drafts of that last year,” says McAdam.

It set out “certain broad-brush commitments of what needs to happen in the region when it comes to supporting people to stay in their homes through adaptation, mitigation, development, but also providing protection if people are displaced, and looking at ways that you might facilitate migration and planned relocations”.

It went beyond even that, to address the controversial subject of emitters of greenhouse gases paying the victims of climate change for the loss and damage they have suffered.

“In the Pacific, your identity is absolutely bound up with the land and sea. And so being dislocated from that can really have quite traumatic and intergenerational consequences,” says McAdam.

“Just because you might have an opportunity to go somewhere else doesn’t mean giving up any claim that you might have for reparations.

“We say very clearly that displacement and loss of home is arguably the greatest form of loss and damage. And in fact, that’s in the Pacific mobility framework.”

The framework calls for “Collective advocacy and action across the Pacific in support of international approaches to loss and damage” of both an economic and non-economic nature.

Shiva Gounden, head of Pacific community engagement for Greenpeace, can speak to the material and cultural costs of both climate change and relocation, based on personal experience.

“It is very difficult for someone like myself, who’s had to move from Fiji to Australia,” he says. For example: “In the schools that you are put into, the schools that your children are put into, English is the language of priority, which means young people disconnect from the cultures.”

In March 2015, Gounden’s humanitarian work saw him in Vanuatu, cleaning up after Cyclone Pam, then the most powerful storm ever in the southern hemisphere. In February the following year he was in the country of his birth, Fiji, in the wake of Cyclone Winston, which was even stronger and more damaging. In February this year he was in Pele, a remote island in Vanuatu, helping locals gather the bones of their ancestors.

The graveyard had been 30 metres from the sea, but due to climate-fuelled erosion “now you can find the tombstones and bones all on the beach,” he says. “So people have to collect these bones, not knowing whose bones they are, and then dig up the remaining graves and move them to higher land.”

At least on Vanuatu there is higher ground, says Gounden, “but on Tuvalu they do not have that”.

He was still in Vanuatu a few days later, when it was hit by two cyclones in succession.

“It was devastating to see what happened with [cyclones] Kevin and Judy. And then the community trying to pick up the pieces. You’re pretty much picking up the pieces and rebuilding continuously. And it’s heartbreaking.”

And grossly unfair, because the island nations of the Pacific have tiny carbon footprints. Australia has not only one of the highest per capita emissions in the world – 17.8 tonnes CO2-e per person in the year to March 2023, according to government figures – but is the third-biggest exporter of fossil fuels.

Gounden finds a bitter irony in the naming of the treaty between Australia and Tuvalu.

“The word Falepili means good neighbour. A good neighbour wouldn’t let its actions destroy the land and homes of others. Tuvalu in my opinion was put in a very tough position where they had to choose between the future sovereignty of the nation and the future survival of its people.”

Of course, the nation might not survive, in a geographical sense, if the world does not collectively stop burning fossil fuels. It might not survive even if it does. As the world’s oldest scientific academy, the Royal Society, says: “If emissions of CO2 stopped altogether, it would take many thousands of years for atmospheric CO2 to return to ‘pre-industrial’ levels … Surface temperatures would stay elevated for at least a thousand years … [the] sea level would likely continue to rise for many centuries even after temperature stopped increasing.”

So what are Tuvalu’s chances?

“On the standard projections, if we got onto the 1.5 degree pathway, there’s a 50-50 chance of limiting sea-level rise to another half metre or more by the end of this century, and over the next two centuries, more than a metre,” says physicist Dr Bill Hare, chief executive and senior scientist at Climate Analytics.

Except the world is not currently on the 1.5 degree pathway. According to the 2022 United Nations Emissions Gap Report, on the current policies of world governments we are tracking to 2.8 degrees of heating by the end of this century. On the basis of promises made so far, we are headed for 2.4 to 2.6 degrees.

Tuvalu is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. In an interview in January, Simon Kofe, minister for justice, communication, and foreign affairs of Tuvalu, detailed its Future Now project, by which the country plans to essentially replicate itself in the metaverse as a way of safeguarding its culture and sovereignty in the event of the loss of its land and the displacement of its people.

“Our hope is that we have a digital nation that exists alongside our physical territory, but in the event that we lose our physical territory, we will have a digital nation that is functioning well and is recognised by the world as the representative of Tuvalu,” he said.

“We want to be able to take a snapshot of what culture is today and allow my children and grandchildren to have that same experience wherever they are in the world. So even if the physical territory is lost, we would never lose the knowledge, culture and way of life that Tuvaluans have experienced and lived for many centuries.”

The fact such plans are being made is not only tragic – it is legally fraught. If a country is submerged, does statehood survive? If former residents move to another country, can they maintain the citizenship rights of their former home? Can they pass those rights to children who have never lived there? And what happens to the territorial waters around the sunken nation? If, hypothetically, all the people of Tuvalu moved elsewhere, would they still control fishing or other rights?

In 2019, former prime minister Kevin Rudd offered a suggestion of Trumpian simplicity. He proposed Australia accept people from Tuvalu and other Pacific countries, if and when they became uninhabitable, in exchange for “their territorial seas, their vast exclusive economic zones, including the preservation of their precious fisheries reserves”.

Rudd’s suggestion, which fell somewhere between imperialism and corporate buyout, never flew. The Falepili deal offered by Australia and accepted by Tuvalu last week, while not exactly a buyout, is still a buy-off, in Hare’s view.

“Tuvalu has done this deal to hedge against the future, but others are not rushing into it, like Kiribati, the Marshalls and so on,” he says.

He suggests the reason is Australia is not addressing the big underlying issue – the necessity of phasing out fossil fuel extraction.

“Instead, the political class seems to be doubling down on more gas and, to some extent, more coal.

“They’ve kind of bought off Tuvalu. It’s Australia buying support in the Pacific.

“I’ve worked with Tuvalu for a long time, as well as other Pacific Island countries. So it [the treaty] is a lifeline to be sure. But it’s not what Australia should have done, I think, by a wide margin.

“Every decade we go on with emissions at present levels [means] 10 or 15 centimetres long-term sea-level rise. That’s the bottom line.”

Gounden calls it “a classic case of chequebook diplomacy – you know, putting money into certain areas while walking away from responsibilities in another”.

But it’s getting harder for Australia and other big polluters to avoid responsibility.

“Last year, we got this loss and damage thing agreed, that was first put forward in 1991. The fifth transitional committee concluded with a draft decision to establish a fund,” says Hare, who expects it to be announced at the COP28 conference that begins in the United Arab Emirates at the end of this month.

However, the “big global moment” will not be at this COP, he says, “but in Brazil in 2025, when countries have to step up and put in targets for 2035 that are aligned with the Paris Agreement of 1.5 degrees”.

Alongside that, of course, pressure is building for a fossil fuel phase-out, with more than 92 countries actively pushing that in the negotiations, Hare says.

“That’s going to be a bit of a flashpoint and interesting to see what Albanese does.”

It sure will. It’s one thing to buy off a small Pacific nation with the promise of refuge from effects of climate change. It’s quite another to take on half the world telling you to stop making things worse.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "The art of the Tuvalu deal".

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