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The Rising Tide


Barack Obama meets with the nations most threatened by climate change; Tuvalu plans for the future of its sinking islands

Published in the December 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “A Rising Tide” is Andrew Marantz’s account of life on the small island nation of Tuvalu, which climate scientists predict might be underwater in fifty years. The story is free to read in full through December 14. Subscribe to Harper’s for instant access to our entire 165-year archive.


From an Al Jazeera report, published December 1, 2015, on the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

U.S. President Barack Obama said that without an ambitious treaty at the end of COP21—a two-week conference running through Dec. 11 where 149 world dignitaries have gathered to address climate change—people may be forced to evacuate islands threatened by rising seas, flooding and extreme weather.
     While meeting presidents and prime ministers from nations such as the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Barbados, Obama said that those states haven’t contributed much to climate change but are “among the most vulnerable.”

Maatia Toafa, the prime minister of Tuvalu, kicked off his leather sandals and crossed his bare feet on the carpet. He wore gold-rimmed glasses with tinted lenses—not the opaque tint of an African dictator but the lighter shading of a Florida retiree—and cream-colored chinos with a sharp crease. On his desk, a tiny Tuvaluan flag waved in the breeze of an oscillating fan. It was his third day in office, and I asked how his administration would be different from the previous one. He would increase government revenue, he said.

“How do you plan to increase revenue?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, folding his hands over his prodigious belly, “I think we need to increase revenue. Because we don’t have much in the way of economic development operations in the country.”

Less than a third of Tuvalu’s 10,000 citizens are formally employed, many of them by the government. The rest live on a combination of remittances and subsistence fishing.

“How will you do it?” I asked again.

“We have to look to our donors.” Toafa speaks in a soothing baritone.

“What’s the best way to attract foreign donors?”

“I think, Andrew, it’s simply to do the right thing. Just do the right thing. That’s it. Whatever assistance they are giving us, we have to put to effective and proper use.” He gave the example of the travel and subsistence allowances that had been set by the previous government. “Ministers traveling to the U.S. get over eight hundred dollars per day,” he said, raising his eyebrows and chuckling. “Wow,” I said. “It’s a lot of money for shopping, Andrew. These are the kinds of issues that need to be addressed immediately.”

“So have you changed the per diem rate?”

“We are looking into it.”

Like most Tuvaluans, Toafa is a Christian. I asked him if he subscribed to the view that God had made a covenant with Noah not to send any more floods. “Religiously, yes, I believe in that,” he said. “But then again, God says, ‘If you don’t do the right thing, then I will punish you.’ If an issue crops up which is becoming a challenge, then we have to come up with a solution to it.”

I asked what solutions he proposed to the issue that his entire country might be underwater in fifty years. He said he would consider “bringing in some mountains from somewhere, so we can have a higher elevation.” 

“Mountains?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

“Where would the mountains come from?” “Well,” he said, “we’ll ask around.” 

Read the entire story.

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