Climate change and Tuvalu: ‘garbage can anarchy’ and media representations (seminar paper, 2010).

Photo and map –
Tuvalu is a small reef island nation in the central Pacific, home to 11,000 Tuvaluans.  Like most low-lying, island or coastal states, Tuvalu is plagued by the threats of climate change with predicted sea-level rise (SLR) and increased storm severity and frequency potentially causing severe impacts, particularly as the island is already prone to risk of flood and storm damage.  This article does not seek to outline the predicted impacts of climate change on Tuvalu, although this may be incidental, but instead focuses on representations of the issue, particularly related to migration as a prospective solution.  Media reports on the fate of Tuvaluhave increased significantly over the last two decades, but the media portrayals are not always accurate and often lack scientific support.  Climate change predictions do not always correlate to the observed impacts, and instead of addressing other social, economic, or development issues unrelated to climate change, many issues get put under the climate change umbrella, in a form of ‘garbage can anarchy’ (Connell, 2003).  These issues, along with consideration as to whether climate change really is motivation for migration for the people of Tuvalu, will be explored further below, using key papers as support of the case study. 

Tuvaluconsists of 24.4 km2 located on 3 small reef islands, and 6 coral atolls, spread over 750,000 km2 (Connell, 2003). The capital, Funafuti, is becoming increasingly built-up and overcrowded, resulting in environmental stressors associated with cyclones, droughts, and flooding becoming even more challenging (Connell, 2003).  Because Tuvalu is very low-lying (average 2m above sea level), it is highly susceptible to storm and flood damage (Mortreux & Barnett, 2009).  Like most small Pacific island states, Tuvalu exhibits restricted social and economic development, with a large portion of its economy based on aid through the Tuvalu Trust Fund, and remittances from nationals working abroad in mines or as seamen on overseas fishing lines (Connell, 2003).  

The predicted impacts from climate change on Tuvaluinclude a lifting of the flooding zone associated with SLR, and an increase in the impacts of coastal erosion from storms (Connell, 2003).  Associated land-loss will lead to a decline in agriculture production, an increase in competition for scarce land, and reduced availability of important resources such as wood.  Erosion of fringing reefs will disturb lagoon ecology, reducing fishing potential, and damage mangrove habitats. (Connell, 2003).  Opportunities for response and adaptation to these impacts can be highly restricted in such small, fragmented, impoverished states as Tuvalu, and it is here that proposal for mass resettlement is often raised. 

Migration has a history of significance in Tuvalu; post war, for work opportunities in mines or as merchant seamen, or other remittance-based ventures in places such as New Zealand(Connell, 2003).  There are widely held assumptions that climate change will result in large scale migration from Tuvalu, but Mortreux and Barnett (2009) challenge these assumptions by identifying a multitude of variables that shape an individuals decision to migrate, including issues at the origin, destination, in-between and personal issues.  Additional stressors such as high population growth and density, low GDP, unemployment, unequal access to resources and services, and poverty should be considered as ‘push’ factors for migration alongside environmental change (Mortreux & Barnett, 2009).  Mortreux and Barnett (2009) conducted extensive field work in Funafuti in order to assess people’s risk perceptions to anticipate future possible migration movements in relation to climate change.  They found that the majority of those questioned wanted to stay, for reasons such as lifestyle, culture, and identity, and those that expressed interest in leaving the island cited reasons such as employment, opportunities, and access to services, before climate change.  Many people claimed they have not seen the affects of climate change personally and therefore don’t see it as a threat (Mortreux & Barnett, 2009).

This disparity between predicted and observed impacts is something explored by Connell (2003) also.  He reports that Australia’s National Tidal Facility stated in 2002 they are yet to see the acceleration of sea levels that climatologists have predicted.  Short term fluctuations in tidal levels have been observed, particularly in response to El Niño events that may have been accentuated by high spring tides, but this is unrelated to long term climate changes (Connell, 2003).  A considerable range of environmental and social changes have been attributed to climate change even when science says they are not related, and this, Connell (2003) states, is an example of ‘garbage can anarchy’, where new problems are grafted onto old ones and given a single cause with once isolated phenomena becoming systematically interrelated.

The media plays a crucial role in representing the issues.  The media has been used as a tool for popularizing and encouraging the idea Tuvaluans need to migrate, when they need more to focus on adaptation (Mortreux & Barnett, 2009), and has accentuated concerns over accelerated global warming and its impact (Connell, 2003).  Popular media, such as The Sydney Morning Herald and Time Magazine, have been quoted using emotive language, such as ‘sinking feeling,’ ‘vanishing worlds,’ and ‘imminent peril of paradise’, often concerning unspecified details, to try attach certainty to their reports, usually with no supporting scientific notes (Connell, 2003).  In an extreme example, Connell (2003) reports an article in the Appalachian Trailway News (2002) stated:
‘Global warming caused the waters of the Pacific Ocean to rise; drowning the country’s (Tuvalu) nine coral atolls and making its 11,000 people flee their homeland forever’
An example of unhelpful sensationalization with an absence of evidence; this is absolutely untrue.

From the above I argue there can be disparity between predicted climate change and what is observed in reality, and that at times unrelated social, environmental, or development issues are attributed to climate change.  I further argue the media adds to this by misrepresenting information, and often local fears and distant media perceptions accentuate and emphasise each other, leading to a false portrayal of the issues.  It has also been shown that for Tuvaluans at least, climate change is not necessarily a motivator for migration.

In light of these explorations, I propose there are other issues unrelated to climate change, such as overpopulation and unemployment, which presently need to be addressed. However, SLR is likely to occur in the future, and emphasis now should be on reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global trend to slow the rate of climate change.  Research should seek to explore methods for developing and adopting adaptive and redevelopment strategies to avoid migration and allow people to sustain existing lifestyles wherever possible.  Media representations, emotions, or politics should not overpower or replace science and reality.
Connell, J., (2003). Losing Ground? Tuvalu, the greenhouse effect and the garbage can. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 44(2): 89-107.
Mortreux, C. and Barnett, J., (2009). Climate change, migration and adaptation in Funafuti, TuvaluGlobal Environmental Change 19: 105-112.