Tuvalu does not relish becoming the world’s first digital nation. But if efforts fail to keep the South Pacific republic above sea level, its 11,500 citizens would rather their islands exist in the metaverse than not at all.
The nation, which is about midway between Australia and Hawaii, showcased its struggle against global warming at a United Nations climate conference in November 2021. In a video, Tuvalu’s then-Foreign Minister Simon Kofe stood behind a podium wearing a business suit — knee-deep in water with an island behind him.
“We are sinking, but so is everyone else,” Kofe said, calling for international action to curtail climate change.
The world’s least-developed countries have contributed minimally to climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions, the U.N. reported in 2022. Yet many “are on the front lines of the climate crisis.”
Tuvalu’s video of Kofe drew millions of views, but the world’s fourth-smallest nation was just getting started. A campaign followed to address rising seas that threaten the 26-square-kilometer archipelago of nine coral islands. The Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs launched the Future Now Project, which challenges nations to curtail burning fossil fuels; aims to ensure Tuvalu retains its statehood and maritime boundaries even if the islands slip beneath the sea; creates a “digitized nation” reflecting Tuvalu’s governance, history, culture and values; and encourages international advocacy against sea-level rise.
The idea of reconstructing an entire nation using augmented and virtual reality is unique. Other countries and cities — Barbados, Seoul and Singapore, for instance — are putting administrative services in the metaverse. Tuvalu will replicate government functions but also depict the islands’ terrain, traditions and landmarks. Kofe introduced the concept to world leaders in November 2022, also via video, saying a digital presence could allow the nation to continue functioning despite land loss.
“Our hope is that we have a digital nation that exists alongside our physical territory, but in the event that we lose our physical territory, we will have a digital nation that is functioning well,” he posted on social media.
Tuvalu began by creating a “digital twin” of the small island of Te Afualiku.
Tuvalu is about 2 meters above sea level and the surrounding ocean is rising 1.5 times faster than the worldwide average, NASA’s Sea Level Change Team reported in August 2023. High tides are projected to cover much of the nation’s land and critical infrastructure by 2050. By some estimates, high tides could inundate 95% of the islands by 2100, making them essentially uninhabitable, The Guardian newspaper reported in June 2023.
High tides already flood homes and other buildings, and saltwater intrusion destroys crops and wells. Warming seawater bleaches corals and harms fishing, CNN reported. Some citizens have relocated to New Zealand and elsewhere for higher ground.
“We can already see from the data that small-scale ocean variability, storms, high tides and sea level rise are all combining to cause flooding in Tuvalu,” Ben Hamlington, who leads the Sea Level Change Team, said in the report.
The Future Now Project “seeks to prepare today to secure the nation’s future under any scenario for a better tomorrow,” the government stated.
Tuvalu also has commissioned land reclamation projects and will keep calling for international consensus on climate change. “It’s the worst feeling ever; worse than being afraid of heights, afraid of the dark,” resident Lily Teafa, 28, told The Guardian. “Now we’re afraid of the future.”