Tuvalu, a small island nation in the South Pacific, has announced plans to digitally replicate itself in the metaverse. A full-scale digital version of the microstate will be built amid fears that Tuvalu will be entirely submerged by rising sea levels before the end of the century.
Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, appeared at the COP27 climate summit to discuss environmental issues with other world leaders and diplomatic representatives.
Kofe told members of the summit: “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 will move them to the cloud.”
The question is if Tuvaluans can cope with future climate catastrophes in the real world by escaping to a virtual home in the metaverse?
Rising sea levels threaten Tuvalu
Tuvalu consists of three reef islands and six atolls (ring-shaped islands). According to some scientists, rising sea levels threaten to wipe them off the map. The most pessimistic projections are that the islands could disappear within the next fifty to one hundred years.
At high tide, up to forty percent of the capital district in the city of Funafuti is underwater. Rising waters also threaten the country’s access to sustenance. Researchers have predicted that “increased soil salinization, coastal erosion, and seawater intrusion into freshwater ecosystems will lead to the higher vulnerability to food insecurity of Tuvaluans.”
Politicians from Tuvalu have been critical of the international community’s response to climate change. During last year’s climate summit, Simon Kofe commented that “it really comes down to countries—the big emitters—that need to act on this. But we will continue to push on, [and] we will continue to advocate to…reduce emissions moving forward.”
Kofe also appeared at last year’s climate summit. To highlight the risk of rising sea levels, he delivered a speech while standing knee-deep in the ocean.
The metaverse is Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for a virtual online world. Users interact within the metaverse using virtual reality headsets.
Zuckerberg, who rebranded Facebook into Meta last year, hopes that the metaverse will transform how people work and socialize. In the future, business meetings and social occasions could be held virtually. Workers might attend the office as holograms from the comfort of their homes.
The first digital nation?
During a digital address to COP27 leaders, Tuvalu’s foreign minister said, “As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation.”
Recreating Tuvalu in the metaverse poses difficult questions, particularly regarding international law.
A digital nation has never existed, and establishing the legal status of its citizens would require international law to break new ground.
In the “real world,” the submergence of Tuvalu would cause a refugee situation. Tuvaluans would have to be re-homed and receive citizenship in their new home countries.
Hypothetically, refugees from Tuvalu might also hold dual citizenship tied to the virtual Tuvalu in the metaverse. A legal status of this kind would be entirely new in international law.
Seve Paeniu, Tuvalu’s finance minister spoke about the legal issues this month. “There is no international agreement that we can rely on that can recognize Tuvalu’s proposed new status,” he said. “That is a challenge before us and we are now raising awareness and advocacy.”
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