By Andrew Simms
LONDON, England (October 29, 2001 – The Guardian)---The world has just shifted on its axis, but not in the way you might first imagine. A group of nine islands, home to 11,000 people, is the first nation to pay the ultimate price for global warming.
For many years the most interesting thing to happen to the Pacific island state of Tuvalu was the sale of its Internet domain name, .tv, for $50 million (£35m). But, just as Tuvalu has traded in its virtual domain, it is about to lose its real one.
The authorities in Tuvalu have publicly conceded defeat to the sea rising around them. Appeals have gone out to the governments of New Zealand and Australia to help in the full-scale evacuation of Tuvalu's population. After an apparent rebuff from Australia, the first group of evacuees is due to leave for New Zealand next year.
Today governments will converge in Marrakesh for the first meeting since agreeing the Kyoto protocol on climate change; the scale of the challenge ahead is still emerging, as is the gross inadequacy of current plans. Tuvalu is paying for the rich world's experiment with the global atmosphere. At that price you could say that it has become the world's greatest creditor nation. Although a land of no mobile phones and one radio station, Tuvalu is literally going down in history. The archipelago may be home to only 11,000 souls, but on other islands another seven million are threatened. It doesn't stop there. Go further and in Bangladesh alone another 20 million people stand to become environmental refugees.
New and old claims to nationhood are at the root of the conflicts through which today's global economic powers are reasserting themselves. But the impact of climate change means the familiar mental landscape of international relations could be turned upside down.
Several decades of dubious management of the global economy made whole parts of the world in Africa and Latin America synonymous with debt.
However, the orthodox debt crisis will pale next to the scale of the emerging ecological debt crisis of climate change. Conventional debtors will become new environmental creditors and vice versa. And the world is not prepared for the implications.
At the least, a new standard of universally recognized global citizenship will probably be needed to deal with the loss of nations. That will need to be coupled with an inclusive plan to tackle climate change and a commensurate compensation framework.
Eun Jung Cahill Che, of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, asks in relation to Tuvalu: "What will become of its territorial waters? What are the economic and security implications of disappearing exclusive economic zones? Can there be compensation for the loss of a country, its history, its culture, its way of life? How do you put a price on that?"
For at least 200 years, two dynamics have driven the global economy. One is the enormous growth of material wealth underwritten by humankind's rampant exploitation of fossil fuel. The other is the relentless widening of the gap between rich and poor. Now, everyone from Tony Blair to the head of the World Bank and former head of the IMF, agrees that the rich/poor divide fuels conflict.
James Marriott, a writer, shows how brief the reign of the fossil fuel economy is going to be. His great-grandfather was the first in his family to smell petrol, and James's parents are the first, and due to climate change probably the last, generation to spend their pensions on international air travel. Costs and benefits in a warming world are grossly unfairly distributed. While countries such as the U.S. enjoy a cheap fuel policy, the brunt of climate change -- floods, rainstorms and drought -- is borne by countries least able to cope -- such as Tuvalu, Bangladesh and Mozambique.
Ecological debt -- where the rich take up more than their logical share of a finite environmental space -- gives developing countries the moral high ground in international negotiations. There should be no question now of poor countries giving one cent of unpayable debt service to any rich country creditor before ecological debts are reconciled. A realistic global deal on debt would acknowledge the logical entitlement to share equally the global commons of the atmosphere and the economic opportunities it brings, within a plan to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases to environmentally tolerable levels.
Rockefeller once said that the poor shall inherit the earth but not its mineral rights. He could never have guessed that the world would soon face a challenge so potentially apocalyptic, that giving the poor their rights would become the minimum necessary to clear up the mess and agree a global solution to climate change.
Andrew Simms works for the New Economics Foundation and is writing a book about ecological debt.
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