Back to Inquiry Set

10.10b.8 Perspectives on Responsibility and Solutions

Allen, Leslie
2004 August
Text Excerpt

Leslie Allen, "Will Tuvalu Disappear Beneath the Sea? Global Warming Threatens to Swamp a Small Island Nation," Smithsonian Magazine, August 2004,

This secondary article contains statements of two different perspectives about the solution to Tuvalu's sea level rise problem. The first is expressed in direct quotations from two Tuvaluan officials, Prime Minister Saufatu Sapo'aga and Assistant Secretary Paani Laupepa. What is this perspective? What nations do they hold responsible? In other speeches, Sapo'aga also requested that Australia (the wealthiest neighboring country to Tuvalu) take in all the people of Tuvalu as climate change refugees. The third paragraph summarizes the opposite perspective. What is that perspective? What do "critics" say about Tuvalu leaders and their supporters? What solutions to the problem of sea level rise in Tuvalu does each perspective offer? Keep in mind that there is a significant debate in the United States over possible solutions to climate change. Which perspectives are shared by scientists and environmentalists in the United States on one side and their opponents on the other?


dire: terrible, desperate

insidious: secretly dangerous, intended to deceive and trap

susceptible: open to, likely to receive, defenseless against

adverse: negative

Atlantis: a mythical city that sank into the sea

opportunists: people who take selfish advantage of a situation

angling: trying to get

would-be: "wannabe"

alarmist: someone who overly exaggerates dangers. People who don't accept evidence of climate change or think it is happening but do not think it is a problem sometimes call scientists and environmentalists "alarmist."

1997 Kyoto Protocol: an agreement among many world nations to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. The United States did not ratify it. It was replaced by the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, after this article was written.

At this point, the sources shift from defining the problem to identifying the possible solutions that nations, the UN, and NGOs have proposed for the sea level rise problem of Tuvalu and nations similarly at risk. Have students make a list of these solutions and begin evaluating them. The first perspective, that of the Tuvaluan officials, is that the United States, Australia, and the developed or Western world are responsible for climate change and therefore should fix Tuvalu's sea level rise crisis, by reducing their emissions to stop climate change, paying for protection projects, or taking in the population as environmental refugees. The second perspective, held by some in the United States, Australia, and the Western world (and probably many in the developing world as well) is, generally speaking, that the Tuvaluans are exaggerating the crisis in order to receive money or the right to emigrate because Australia and New Zealand are wealthier than Tuvalu. The stakes are much higher than just Tuvalu, since so much of the developing world is at risk from island and coastal flooding in the future. If Tuvaluans are given aid or allowed to emigrate, people in other nations will demand the same.

Note, as the most recent data (2016) indicates, the United States and Australia are tied as the second largest emitters per capita, behind Saudi Arabia.

The islands of Tuvalu, scattered over 500,000 square miles of equatorial ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia, appear so wispy and are so low-lying, no more than 15 feet above sea level, that it's easy to visualize the waves just washing over them. ... Tuvalu's leaders have been making [dire pronouncements] for more than a decade. The planet's fourth-smallest nation, they say, faces extinction because of climate change. Rising seas and deadly storms have reportedly started to swamp the islands, and fears are growing that Tuvalu will be uninhabitable or may vanish entirely within a few decades. Prime Minister Saufatu Sapo'aga told the United Nations last year that the global-warming threat is no different from "a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us." ...
In fact, Tuvalu threatened in 2002 to sue the United States and Australia for excessive carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, some Tuvaluans are getting ready to abandon their homeland. "Islanders Consider Exodus as Sea Level Rises," the British newspaper The Guardian reported last year.

A new Atlantis? Maybe. But not all scientists agree that Tuvalu's future is underwater. Some critics have branded island leaders as opportunists angling for foreign handouts and special recognition for would-be "environmental refugees" who, they say, are exploiting the crisis to gain entry to New Zealand and Australia. Others have even said that people and organizations sympathetic to Tuvalu are "eco-imperialists" intent on imposing their alarmist environmental views on the rest of the world. ...

"The rest of the world should act immediately and together to cut down on its use of greenhouse gases," says Paani Laupepa, an assistant secretary in Tuvalu's Department of Foreign Affairs, headquartered on the second floor of a private home in Funafuti. By "rest of the world," Laupepa mostly means the United States and Australia, the world's largest overall and highest per capita producers, respectively, of greenhouse gases — and the only developed countries that declined to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which calls for gradually reducing emissions of those gases. (U.S. officials say the protocol doesn't cover developing countries, sets arbitrary emission-reduction targets and would harm the economy.) "The United States, with a small percentage of the world's people, uses 25 percent of the world's resources," Laupepa goes on. "You Americans have a good lifestyle, all the conveniences, three or four cars per family. You need to appreciate the impact that has on our lives here."