Last November, Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu – a nation formed out of a series of low-lying atolls in the South Pacific – addressed the Glasgow climate conference from a wooden lectern. Exactly what you’d expect at an international summit. Except that the lectern, and Kofe in his suit and tie, were part-submerged by several feet of ocean. In his speech, which had been pre-recorded on location in Tuvalu, he told delegates that his nation was “living the reality” of climate change. “When the sea is rising around us all the time,” he said, “climate mobility must come to the forefront.”
Tuvalu has long been viewed as a kind of laboratory for climate change – the first nation in history likely to be consumed by sea level rise, its population of 12,000 set to be among the earliest climate refugees. Many Tuvaluans bristle at this portrayal, which can fetishise their plight as the inhabitants of a drowning world. They don’t want to be classed this way because it makes them feel less than fully human. Instead, they are developing a different approach to the physical disappearance of their dry land. Kofe’s phrase “climate mobility” is shorthand for a radical notion in international law: that a country can retain its statehood, even as it loses its physical territory.