Last March, when cyclone Pam hit the tiny nation of Tuvalu, a string of low-lying coral islands in the South Pacific, it brought bodies with it. As the tide surged across a cemetery on the atoll of Nui, it roiled the ground, unearthing corpses and washing them into the streets. The Category 5 storm displaced Nui’s living residents, too. When the water receded, they returned to their homes, gathered the bones and skulls they could find, and reburied their dead.
Six months after the storm and 7,500 miles away, Tafue Lusama, the General Secretary of the Christian Church of Tuvalu, described the scene to an audience gathered at Union Theological Seminary, in Manhattan. Clicking through slides on a PowerPoint presentation, he spoke about the ways climate change is altering the lives of his country’s 11,000 inhabitants: Rising tides are encroaching on the land, most of which lies less than two meters above sea level. Salt water is coming up through the porous ground, killing crops. Coral bleaching is leading to declines in fish stocks, the country’s main source of protein. And the people of Tuvalu are faced with the possibility that they will eventually be forced to abandon their islands entirely.
“Most, if not all, countries in the world care about what’s going to happen to Tuvalu,” Lusama said after the presentation, sitting at a cafe table in the seminary’s leafy courtyard. “But they don’t care enough to sacrifice something.”
Lusama, who’s 50 and soft-spoken, is one of the founders of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network and spends about three-quarters of the year traveling around the globe, warning of the need for action. At the end of November, he plans to fly to Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; there, delegates from nearly 200 countries will seek a historic agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global temperature rise to no more than two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. (That mark is generally—though not universally—considered the threshold under which we can avoid snowballing climate catastrophe.) In other words, what happens in Paris will spell out exactly how much the countries of the world are willing to sacrifice—if not to save Tuvalu, then to avert global combustion.
Climate hawks regard the Paris conference as a critical window of opportunity, coming at a moment when world leaders seem especially motivated to push an agreement through, and when climate-change mitigation is actually still feasible. Limiting warming to two degrees presents a significant practical challenge, to put it mildly, but at least in theory, it’s still possible. And while any agreement that does come out of Paris will be insufficient on its face—the emissions cuts countries have pledged in advance of the conference aren’t enough to keep us within the two-degree limit—it would be a crucial starting point. If carbon emissions are left unchecked, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world could see a four-degree rise by the end of the century, by which point the effects of climate change will likely translate into food insecurity, health crises, mass migration, and violent conflict over resources. The world’s poorest regions are expected to be hit the hardest.
Lusama is cautiously optimistic about Paris, partly because he has to be but also because he, too, has perceived a shift in the political winds—not a big one, but maybe big enough. “I think there’s been a slow move toward recognizing that if you sacrifice Tuvalu today, you sacrifice yourself tomorrow,” he said. Even if a meaningful agreement is reached, though, it’s unclear how much it can help Tuvalu and other low-lying Pacific nations at this point. It’s long been expected that Tuvalu will be one of the first countries to be engulfed by rising seas, forcing its people to migrate en masse to Fiji or New Zealand or Australia. New research has suggested that Tuvalu’s dynamic coral-sediment base has actually been growing along with sea levels, which could allow the islands to avoid going under. But “not underwater” isn’t the same thing as habitable, so even the most optimistic scenario for Tuvalu would require expensive adaptation measures. (One contentious point in Paris will be the question of how much money will be committed by wealthy nations to developing countries to foster sustainable development and climate adaptation.)
Lusama sees the outcome of the Paris conference as pivotal, not just because time is running out—although it is—and not just because a failure there could stifle whatever momentum has been building—although it could—but also because, at a certain point, you have to read the writing on the wall. “We in the Pacific—not only Tuvalu—see this as our last chance of making something happen,” Lusama said. “If we fail to do that in Paris, then where else?”