Minister of Foreign Affairs, Communications and Justice Mr Simon Kofe, an exclusive interview

Climate change and small islands developing States: where there once was land, there is no longer
l Ministro degli Esteri di Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, durante il suo discorso al Cop26
l Ministro degli Esteri di Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, durante il suo discorso al Cop26
Tempo di lettura 7 min lettura
12 gennaio 2023 Aggiornato alle 22:00

Tuvalu is composed of 9 islands and lived by 12,000 people in the Pacific Ocean.

Mr. Simon Kofe, the first time I read about Tuvalu Islands was when I was reading the book The Cruise of the Janet Nichol among South Sea Islands, written by Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, the wife of Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson.

Many years after, I was impressed, as well as many other persons worldwide, by your astonishing message to Cop26 (UN climate change Conference) with your famous video from the sea.

By the strong image you gave and by your speech you have opened – in an emotional way - the eyes to the world on what is going to happen to your islands and, more generally, to the planet.

I was impressed from your call to help the islands not only considered as a land where people live, but also the traditions and the ancestors memories that every land conserves. At a certain moment, you mentioned “the mana of your ancestors” that, for a European, means not only the memories of those who were but also the vital spirit that lives in a place.

Somehow, you highlighted that the land is sacred for those who live it, and this is a concept that is worth for all people of the world and, therefore, we have to preserve the land to stay alive and to secure the future that belongs to those who will follow us.

As Europeans, we are used to think to the islands in the Pacific Ocean as a paradise on Earth. Could you confirm that this works also for Tuvalu islands?

Yes the Pacific Islands are known for its tropical climate, sandy beaches, culture and the great sense of community.

How is the climate change affecting your country? In addition to the increasing of the sea level, what other adverse effects climate change has? I am thinking to the impact on ground water or drought. Could you please let us know what your people are experiencing?

We are seeing more extreme weather events, especially more intense changes in weather, droughts, and much stronger tropical cyclones, which have wiped out parts of our islands in some cases. We are also feeling the effects of increased salinity in our lands and fresh water, which has negatively affected our local crops. This has led to an increase in the incidence of non-communicable diseases because we have to rely more on imported foods than fresh local produce.

When you live on thin strips of islands, and can see the lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other, climate change and sea level rise become very real. On the 9th of November, last month, Tuvalu declared a State of Emergency for Extreme Droughts. Water have been rationed for households as 6 buckets of water which can be filled during the day and night time. However operations ceases on Sundays.

Let me give you another example. In images of the video shoot that I did for Cop26, you can see behind me the concrete base of a US WWII gun: a M1918 155mm gun manned by the 5th Defense Battalion on Funafuti. This concrete base used to be situated on land, but it is now completely surrounded by the sea due to soil erosion caused by sea level rise.

This is a clear example of the impacts climate change has had on our people. Where there once was land, there is no longer.

In consideration of the climate changes, the Paris Agreement of 12 December 2015 highlighted the necessity of climate adaption actions. During the last Cops, and especially during Cop27, the concept of a Loss and Damages Fund has been introduced (you also mentioned this concept in your video). May these actions have a meaning on low islands? If we do not stop the global warming, how can we assist low lands and isles?

We appreciate the efforts that many nations around the world have made to halt the impacts of climate change, including commitments made to lowering emissions, contributions to climate financing and the achievement on the concept of Loss and Damage.

However, we would urge all nations around the world to do more to look at the impacts of the use of coal and fossil fuels on countries like my own and stop the use of these fossil fuels as soon as possible.

We hope that the world can strongly support Tuvalu on climate finance and funding for adaptation, especially land reclamation, and that all nations can continue to work with Pacific Island nations in protecting our Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Ocean is one of the most important assets Pacific Island nations have, and we must strive to protect it from the effects of climate change and all other pollution and negative environmental impacts.

Regardless of whether we are heartened or disappointed by the Cop outcomes, what we have to remember is that action and implementation are key. However ambitious or unambitious the outcomes of a meeting are, everything can be turned around--for the good or the bad--through our actions.

Your country is classified as one of the small islands developing States and it is a member of the Alliance of small island States (Aosis), how could this alliance help to deal with the climate change issues?

Small islands developing States are at the forefront of the climate crisis. Tuvalu, like other members of Aosis, share common interests and challenges when it comes to the climate crisis. We speak to the world with greater urgency because we are already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change. It is critical that we as members of Aosis work collaboratively to raise global awareness of the threat of climate change and push other nations to take greater responsibility for the climate crisis.

We have seen many initiatives advanced by Small island developing States such as:

1) the establishment of the Commission of small island States on climate change and International Law - Founded by Tuvalu and Antigua and Barbuda;

2) Future Now Project - launched by Tuvalu in 2021;

3) UN Resolution calling on the ICJ for a advisory opinion on climate change - initiated by Vanuatu;

4) The call for a Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation treaty - Vanuatu and Tuvalu.

Under the Future Now Project: we are attempting to maintain our sovereignty without land by embedding in our foreign policy a provision that Tuvalu will only form new bilateral relations with nations that recognize Tuvalu’s Statehood and existing maritime boundaries as permanent.

We are using our new joint communiques for forming and reaffirming diplomatic relations to achieve this goal.

We are also pursuing various efforts to develop customary international law on the retention of Statehood and maritime boundaries in the face of sea level rise so that these issues gain traction as recognized legal norms and become accepted standards in international law. Another solution is to rapidly adopt innovative digital tools and platforms and build a digital nation.

Do you believe that other alliances should be made or that all countries should take some other concrete commitments (in addition to the reduction of greenhouse gas emission and other than the Loss and Damage Fund) in order to combat the climate change?

There is value in forming alliances to advance a particular cause, however the climate crisis requires all countries in the world to work together. Members of Aosis can band together to enhance our climate advocacy however ultimately it will require a collective global effort to address the climate crisis.

If countries commit to taking bold action now, in accordance with the Glasgow Climate Pact, and beyond, we can limit emissions and secure bold financing for adaptation. If we do nothing, all of our negotiations will have been for nothing.

Thank you very much, Mr. Kofe for your time. One last message: is there something that you want to tell to our readers?

In Tuvalu, we contribute a negligible amount to the greenhouse gas emissions that are negatively affecting our planet and leading to the environmental catastrophe you have mentioned in your question. We will do our part to reach net zero emissions as quickly as possible and phase out other materials and elements harmful to the global environment, but we need other nations to understand their shared responsibility to address climate change and sea level rise to achieve global well-being.

Knowing that Tuvalu’s attempts to slow down the climate crisis will by no means reverse the negative impacts we as a global community are facing, we must motivate greater awareness and empathy throughout the international community. Impressing upon other nations the role they must take in overcoming the crisis we currently face is perhaps the best way we in Tuvalu can slow the effects of climate change and sea level rise.

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