Climate change to make Tuvalu the world’s first ‘digital nation’

Issue 
Image showing an island in Tuvalu, with matrix-style figures in background
‘As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation.’ Graphic: Green Left

When lost to climate disaster and environmental turbulence, where does a whole country go? History speaks about movements of people, whether caused by human agency or the environment, finding sanctuary and refuge on other land, or perishing altogether.

In the case of Pacific Island country Tuvalu, the response is seemingly digital or, as its officials prefer to call it, creating the “digital nation”. According to the government, this will operate in the metaverse, a three-dimensional virtual space marked by avatars roaming through immersive experiences.

This does not sound particularly useful for refugees fleeing the flood, but this is partly the point: moving beyond the finite issues of territory and statehood. In the emphatic words of Tuvalu Minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe: “As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation.

“Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious assets of our people. And to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we’ll move them to the cloud.”

Kofe said this from the digital twin of the Teafualiku Islet, Tuvalu’s smallest island. Kofe previously delivered an address to COP26 while standing knee-deep in the sea.

The Caribbean Island nation of Barbados and the South Korean capital, Seoul, also have ambitions to provide consular and administrative services from the metaverse.

The Barbadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade signed an agreement with Decentraland in November last year, with a view of finalising agreements with other metaverse platforms such as Somnium Space and Superworld. There are a range of issues being contemplated: how digital land will be purposed to house the relevant virtual embassies and consulates; how e-visas will be granted; and the construction of teleporters enabling users to move their avatars through the metaverse. The appeal of the program to the ministry was one of numerical reach with minimal logistical problems.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government, after its announcement in November last year about moving some of its functions into the metaverse, released a beta version this year of its “virtual municipal world” called Metaverse Seoul. Cities Today reported that the city “aims to have a metaverse environment for all administrative services, including economy, culture, and tourism” in place by 2026.

Addressing the legal context of a submerged state will raise novel problems. What is one to do with maritime boundaries and the resources located within the relevant waters?

The International Law Association established the Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise in November 2012 to study the possible impacts of rising sea levels and its “implications under international law of the partial and complete inundation of state territory, or depopulation thereof, in particularly of small island and low-lying states”. The second part to the Committee’s mandate is to develop proposals to develop international law regarding losses of territory and the impact on maritime zones, “including the impacts on statehood, nationality and human rights”.

The implications of such losses are clear enough. Should the loss of a state to inundation and submergence also result in a loss of citizenship? Legal scholar Marija Dobrić concluded in a 2019 study that “it is unclear whether the people affected may be considered ‘stateless people’ within the meaning of the Conventions on Statelessness and, even if they did, how far that would serve to protect their rights effectively”.

Transferring the actual, tangible world to the metaverse, with all its official and legal implications, will be difficult. It relocates one set of challenges for another. Issues of privacy, moderating what content goes into such a model and how people are to conduct themselves, are pressing points.

Works such as Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, do little to clear this up, focusing on something close to religious dogma. As one reviewer accurately puts it, the work not only minimises the importance of ethical, political and legal issues but also fails to address “how to construct the metaverse responsibly”.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]