The Incredible Sinking Nation
Reverend Tafue Lusama is not a man without a country―yet. Hailing from the tiny nation of Tuvalu, Lusama toured the Midwest, South and Washington, D.C. in November telling fellow Christians the story of his homeland. Tuvalu, a coral atoll in the South Pacific with its highest peak only 15 feet above sea level, is imminently threatened by the effects of climate change. As a former local pastor and the current chairman of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network (TuCAN), Lusama invokes the words of the apostle Paul from I Corinthians 12:26, “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it.” And so Lusama, in somber and sometimes sad tones, calls on the Church to “be real Christians and be with us.”
Most people in the world have never heard of Tuvalu. With around 12,000 citizens, Tuvalu is smaller than many American suburbs. A former British possession, the nation achieved independence in 1978 but still retains links to the U.K. through the Commonwealth system. Its land mass covers about 10 square miles spread out among several thin islands, and until recently the Polynesian people there have lived well off the fruit of the soil and the bounty from the sea around them.
Lusama showed those on Capitol Hill his favorite map, one centered on the sprawling islands of the Pacific, and pointed out his country near Fiji. He also highlighted the misspelled “Tavul,” which he believes is appropriate as the nation is literally disappearing.
His two-and-half week American whirlwind, organized by the creation care group Restoring Eden, took him to numerous Christian colleges and even into the pulpit of Morningstar Fellowship Church, the Charlotte area charismatic megachurch that sits on the old grounds of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s 1980s spiritual empire.
The “Ankle Deep in Reality” tour was sometimes frustrating. At certain stops, he says the “people came in full already” with climate change skepticism. Still, Lusama advises that activists “keep on knocking” even in the face of opposition.
Like former Vice President Al Gore, who has galvanized both action and opposition in the U.S., the pastor travels with a slide show. Lusama’s is not as flashy as Gore’s, and no documentaries have been made about it. The presentation includes mostly simple but powerful images from Tuvalu―like the nation’s only airstrip covered in water and reflecting a beautiful tropical sunset.
His message is uncomplicated and direct, and he speaks not from an inland mansion but from a lifetime spent among a nation that feels it is now in the crosshairs, like Job, despite having done nothing wrong. The soft-spoken pastor even dares to use disturbing words like “genocide” to describe the effects on his people.
Seasonal high tides now flood buildings built on the solid ground of the past. Before, locals could gather all the fish they needed within canoeing range, but now outboard motors are required to make a catch. The economic consequences of such a shift are real when gasoline goes for well over $15 a gallon and the per capita income is only $1,600 a year. Additionally, traditional farming methods that relied on digging down to a thin but reliable layer of fresh groundwater are now failing as saltwater sometimes pushes all the way through to the surface. As a result, the coconut trees and other native plants are dying with increasing frequency. Several small islands, once covered in vegetation, now better resemble desert sands after storms have stripped them bare.
Congregationalist missionaries brought Christianity to Tuvalu in the late 1800s, and today the U.S. Government’s World Factbook lists 97 percent of the population as belonging to the Christian state church with another 1.4 percent as Seventh-Day Adventist.
According to Lusama, the people’s faith is deeply ingrained into their culture, and conversely this prevents some of them from accepting that the water is rising around them. The reverend reports that while almost everyone in his country believes in climate change (they have undeniably seen the new weather patterns) not everyone believes a total inundation is coming.
Pointing to God’s promise to Noah after the Flood, many Tuvaluans simply refuse to believe their Creator will let this happen. Lusama points out to his people that while God promised not to flood the world, He never said He would stop man from doing it on his own.
Lusama fears that dispersal will have negative cultural and spiritual impacts on his people, and already some are questioning God’s providence as the land and sea no longer provide as it did in the past. People are starting to look for work elsewhere in places like New Zealand, and a few families are already being forced to relocate by the rising waters.
After his American tour and a brief time at home, Lusama and a small Tuvalu delegation attended the December international climate change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. For a couple of days in December, little Tuvalu generated worldwide headlines by taking controversial procedural steps to highlight the plight of island nations.
Scientists have told Lusama that a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels is needed by 2020 to save the nation, and in Copenhagen the Tuvaluans were willing to make waves to try and stop the waves lapping at their shores. The Tuvalu plan, however, was much more ambitious than most of the ideas being floated by larger nations. The United States came promising only a 17 percent reduction from 2005 emissions by 2020 (which translates to a 6 percent reduction from 1990 levels). The European Union proposal, seen by some as overly ambitious, topped out at 30 percent cuts over 1990 for that timeframe.
In the end, the hundreds of heads of state and national delegations left with little to show for their efforts. Though some progress was made toward providing climate change adaptation funding for the developing world, no grand bargain was struck. While hailed by President Obama as an important step forward, one African leader instead described the resulting non-binding Copenhagen Accord as “a suicide pact.”
Disturbingly, the scientific outlook for Tuvalu is growing bleaker. At one point, Tuvaluans were told that it would be 100 years before they would need to evacuate. That estimate was cut to 30 a few years back, and recently officials have been advised that even that number is now overly optimistic. Thus, if the researchers are correct, the cards seem stacked against the tiny nation.
With painful resolve in his voice, Lusama told those gathered in D.C. , “If [Tuvalu] cannot be saved, we don’t want to go down for nothing.” He then recited a long list of low-lying lands (from the Marshall Islands to Bangladesh) that he fears will be next. But for now he is fighting to save his own homeland, even if that quest takes him far from home.
The evening session in D.C. closed with a time of prayer. Lusama’s final request to those gathered was to “pray for the world of Christians to stand together.” If that does not happen, he fears that his family will soon no longer be able to stand in the place that they have always called home.