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‘Much has changed since Cop26 but we cannot lose focus’: Tuvalu’s foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize nominee says vows made in Glasgow must be kept

Simon Kofe's televised speech to Cop26 in Glasgow in November saw the camera pull back to reveal him knee-deep in the ocean – highlighting the risk of climate change to his South Pacific nation
Simon Kofe's televised speech to Cop26 in Glasgow in November saw the camera pull back to reveal him knee-deep in the ocean – highlighting the risk of climate change to his South Pacific nation

As the world watched, it would become one of the most arresting images of Cop26.

Simon Kofe, in suit, shirt and tie, stood at a lectern to deliver a televised speech to the climate summit in Glasgow before the camera pulled back to reveal he was standing knee-deep in the ocean.

Tuvalu’s foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize nominee used the visual twist to highlight his country’s struggle against rising sea levels caused by climate change and how, made up of nine small islands in the Pacific Ocean, it could be submerged by water by the end of the century.

Climate change has also been blamed for causing droughts in Tuvalu and currently water is being rationed. Eight months after the agreement at Cop26 to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, Kofe warns world leaders need to continue focusing on climate change despite other challenges facing the planet since the summit.

He said: “A lot has happened since Cop26. We are facing multiple crises on different fronts. There is the war in Ukraine, rocketing food and fuel prices, and the ongoing recovery from the pandemic.

“These are all issues governments and leaders are grappling with at this time and I recognise that draws attention away from climate change. Understandably, countries are not really focused or implementing the commitments and pledges. But we will continue to fight for 1.5˚C as our goal. We’re already at 1.2˚C and are seeing the impacts of that right now in different parts of the world.”

Tuvalu, situated midway between Hawaii and Australia, is on average just two metres above sea level. Due to climate change it has suffered more flooding and cyclones, but also drought. Rainfall is the only source of fresh water for the islands, which have no rivers.

Kofe said: “The rainwater is used for drinking, bathing and for feeding our animals. So when that runs out, it’s a big, big problem for us. For the past couple of weeks, water has been rationed for families. For countries like Tuvalu, we are at the mercies of the environment. So the impact of climate change is of real concern to us.”

Ocean levels in the western Pacific have risen at two to three times faster than the global average. Water levels in Tuvalu are rising 4mm a year and the islands could be submerged by the ocean in the next 50 to 100 years but Kofe warned the islands could become uninhabitable before then.

He said: “Living conditions will be so difficult on the islands that people would have to be forced to relocate. Tuvalu is planning for that worst-case scenario, looking at ways to secure our statehood under international law in the event we are forced to relocate or our physical land area disappears.

“Just thinking about that is a reality check. If their country started planning for relocation or looking at issues of statehood, I’m sure leaders would take this more seriously.

“It’s critical we remain focused on climate change because it is an existential threat to us. The responsibility is on us at the forefront of the impact of climate change to keep this on the agenda and ensure leaders around the world are considering the issue of climate change in the midst of all the competing interests and issues that they are facing.”

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Britain has pledged to curb carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said achieving net zero was the “right thing to do” as he chaired cabinet for the last time last week.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the frontrunner to become the next prime minister, has pledged to stick with net zero but wants to suspend green levies on energy bills and “unleash the gas supplies we have in the North Sea”. Former chancellor Rishi Sunak warned against going “too hard and too fast” on climate action in a TV debate last week.

Kofe said: “We were looking to the UK for leadership, and if that is the direction they’re going be heading in it is quite disappointing. We need to look again at how we send our message out to the public because they are the ones who put pressure on their leaders.

“So, hopefully, people will come out strongly and support leaders that are serious about climate change and will take stronger action.”

Kofe has been nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, alongside the likes of climate activist Greta Thunberg, broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough and Pope Francis. Kofe said: “People are becoming increasingly concerned about and aware of issues of climate change. Our goal is to bring that awareness to the world because I believe living in bigger countries you don’t necessarily feel the impacts of climate change.

“We are in a strategic position to forewarn the bigger countries of what is to come. So being nominated is a great honour. But I think it’s also an indication of the concerns of the people right now.”

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Last week The Sunday Post reported on the catastrophic loss of life in our oceans. Kofe said: “There are so many threats to the oceans – the dumping of plastics, seabed mining, over-fishing – and it’s driven by human greed.

“In the Pacific, we’re at the forefront of sustainable fisheries and have some of the healthiest fish stock in the world. In fact, scientists are saying the last healthy tuna fish stock in the world is in the Pacific. That’s to the credit to the collaboration amongst the Pacific nations in applying conservation and management measures across the region. We recognise there are always commercial interests driving for greater profits. But it’s our responsibility, as stewards of the resources in our waters, to ensure we’re doing the right thing.”

Cop27 will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in November. Ahead of the summit, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of 39 countries from the Caribbean and South Pacific, warned that “ramped-up action must replace rhetoric”.

AOSIS chair Walton Webson said: “With less than four months to go until Cop27, the stated commitment of bigger countries to the fight against climate change is incongruous with their actions.

“AOSIS was considerably disappointed by the general lack of momentum, which was made evident at the recently concluded Bonn climate change conference.

“At Cop26, AOSIS made the difficult decision to agree to certain concessions – particularly on loss and damage – so that the Glasgow pact could be realised. We acted in good faith and have yet to see the substantive progress we were promised.”