On 9 November 2023, the Australian Government and the Government of Tuvalu signed a historic climate change refuge and security treaty called the Falepili Union. Named after the Tuvaluan term ‘falepili’, which means good neighbourliness, the Falepili Union recognises the shared obligation that Australians and Tuvaluans have to support, protect and aid each other, with a specific focus on the impacts of climate change. However, as the world’s first climate change migration agreement, and one which involves the most widely known island state for its struggles with climate change, many are left wondering if this particular treaty is sufficient enough to support Tuvaluans in what is likely to become their home away from home.
At a mere three metres above sea level, Tuvalu will increasingly struggle with land degradation, food insecurity and extreme weather as a result of climate change. With international carbon emission levels to worsen and global temperatures surging, it is becoming increasingly likely that Tuvalu will be completely inundated by seawater by mid-century. NASA’s Sea Level Change Team predicts that most of Tuvalu’s land area and critical infrastructure will be below the average high tide by 2050. In this context, climate change mitigation and adaptation is a priority for many Tuvaluans who are seeking ways to preserve their island landscape.
In an effort to support Tuvalu, the Falepili Union commits funding to climate change adaptation and mitigation measures while also establishing an open migration pathway for 280 Tuvaluans to migrate to Australia annually. While this pathway is revered as an opportunity for simple human mobility, in the long term this pathway has been designed to enable the dignified relocation of an entire population to a more stable territory. In other words, the Falepili Union facilitates “migration with dignity”. It is both a lifestyle opportunity for Tuvaluans and their lifeline in the instance that climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts fail. In this way, Australia and Tuvalu are charting new territory in how states can respond to people displaced by climate change. Australia has ultimately committed to being Tuvalu’s home when Tuvaluans have no physical territory safe to reside on.
However, it is important that the question of how states should respond to climate change displacement should not be confused or conflated with discussions of loss and damage. Having dominated international discussions since the creation of the COP27 Loss and Damage Fund, loss and damage refers to the economic and non-economic losses suffered by individuals as a result of human-induced climate change. Efforts to address compensation for these losses in recent times have overshadowed questions about how best to support those affected by mass climate change displacement, permanent loss of sovereign territory and indefinite statelessness due to extreme weather conditions.
Some actors also suggest that these issues have even been intentionally overlooked by prominent international climate change bodies and key environmental policies because of their limited representation in international law. Nonetheless, Australia and Tuvalu’s Falepili Union have thrust these questions of self-determination, social and political autonomy, and sovereignty without physical territory into the limelight.
So, what comes next? How should states respond to and support the plight of people displaced by climate change? Are treaties like the Falepili Union enough?
Although the Falepili Union is an important step forward and one which reaffirms Tuvalu’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence” and commits to “ensuring human mobility with dignity” in the face of climate change, it is ultimately a migration pathway. The Falepili Union allows Tuvaluans to work, study, and live in Australia on a mutual and moral understanding that climate change is currently affecting Tuvaluan lives and livelihoods and will displace Tuvaluans in the not-all-too-distant future. On this basis, this treaty is designed in order to support Tuvaluan nationals to be part of Australian communities, the workforce, and the education system on the grounds of climate change alone.
Yet, despite acknowledging Tuvalu’s sovereign integrity, close-knit community, and their deep spiritual connection to land and sea, this treaty falls short of proposing measures to protect the rights of Tuvaluans to their social, and political autonomy, their self-determination, and ultimately, their own cultural survival in Australia. Evidence highlights that the migration of just 280 Tuvaluans alone to Australia every year, on a temporary basis, will negatively affect cultural and linguistic practices. In a future where many nation-states are likely to lose their territory to climate change, it is vital that, in addition to migration pathways like the Falepili Union, states recognise and demonstrate respect for the social, cultural and political autonomy and independence of climate change displaced communities, elevate their voices through dialogue, and enable space and support for the ongoing social, cultural and spiritual existence of displaced people. States worldwide should provide displaced communities with recognition and support for their cultural and social heritage and autonomy even if it happens to be on territories distinct and distant from their own.