Tuvalu Envoy Takes Up Global Warming Fight U.N. Ambassador Afelee Pita left his island nation of fewer than 12,000 people to take up its cause in Manhattan, an island city of millions. Tuvalu's highest point is 13 feet above sea level. Global warming means more storms and a rising sea.
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Tuvalu Envoy Takes Up Global Warming Fight

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Tuvalu Envoy Takes Up Global Warming Fight

Tuvalu Envoy Takes Up Global Warming Fight

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NPR and National Geographic are traveling the world this year, looking at climate connections, how people shape the earth's climate and how climate shapes people. We're following the prime meridian and the International Date Line, those imaginary lines that run from pole to pole and divide the earth in half.

Today: the South Pacific. Some of the most remote island nations on earth are there. The threat is that sea levels rise because of global warming, the small countries and their ways of life could disappear.

That's why the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu scraped funds together to send an ambassador to the United Nations. He hopes to grab the world's attention before it's too late.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Earlier this spring in New York, the United Nations Security Council held a special session to take up the issue of climate change. Among those who spoke was one of the newest ambassadors to the U.N.: Afelee Pita.

Unidentified Man: And I give the floor to the representative of Tuvalu.

Ambassador AFELEE PITA (Tuvalu Ambassador to U.N.): Thank you, Mr. President. Tuvalu is greatly honored to be given this golden opportunity to speak at the United Nations Security Council. First, I must thank you, Mr. President and the wisdom of your government for calling for this special open debate of the council under the theme of energy, security and climate.

SHAPIRO: For the first time, the United Nations was defining global warming as a threat to the security of nations - every bit as dangerous as war or nuclear weapons. The ambassador from the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu told the council that's the right way to look at it.

Ambassador PITA: The world has moved from a global threat once called the Cold War to what now should be considered the Warming War. Our conflict is not with guns and missiles, but with weapons from everyday lives - chimney stacks and exhaust pipes.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Pita, stocky in a dark suit, sat at the end of the horseshoe desk on the floor of the Security Council. His wife, also in a dark pantsuit, sat just a few feet behind them. This was his chance to tell the world. Other big countries pollute, but tiny island nations like his may be the first to pay.

Ambassador PITA: We've face many threats associated with climate change. Ocean warming is changing the very nature of our island nation. Slowly, our coral reefs are dying through coral bleaching. We are witnessing changes to fish stocks. And we face the increasing threat of more severe cyclones. With the highest point of four meters above sea level, the threat of severe cyclones is extremely disturbing.

SHAPIRO: There's some debate among scientists about just how much global warming threatens Tuvalu. But Tuvalu's fear is that ocean waters will rise, cyclones will grow more intense, that people will be forced to move to other countries and that Tuvalu, along with its way of life, will disappear.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

SHAPIRO: In Tuvalu, time moves to the calming rhythm of the waves...

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

SHAPIRO: ...turquoise water lapping white, sandy beaches under deep blue skies.

Ambassador PITA: Back home, I can be out there in one of the islets, nothing to worry about, enjoying the beach. I can see the blue lagoon, and you can go out fishing. Whatever I can have, enough for a meal. Easy life.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Pita speaks from his new office, several stories high above another island. That would be the island of Manhattan.

(Soundbite of busy street)

SHAPIRO: Before his appointment as Tuvalu's U.N. ambassador, Pita was a high-ranking official in several ministries. It seems a bit cruel that when he arrived in New York, it was December - icy and cold. That was six months ago. He still's homesick for Tuvalu.

The Pacific island country he left is so small that when the 30-seater turboprop flies on Mondays and Thursdays, young men run out to the landing strip and take down the soccer goal posts. Pita says it's hard to think of New York as an island.

Ambassador PITA: Very complicated island. You know? What I do is totally different from what you can do back home. Because here, although it's an island, but it's an island with so many very tall buildings all - everywhere you go. And I think this is not actually the unique features of an island.

SHAPIRO: To get heard at the U.N., Tuvalu used a bit of good fortune. It was assigned the Internet country suffix, TV. So it sells that to people who want a dot-TV Web site. The first things Tuvalu did with the windfall: It paved the main road - just five miles long - and sent an ambassador to the United Nations.

Pita is the second ambassador. His appointment is for three years. But the money is running out now, and Tuvalu's delegation of five is about to be reduced to just two - Pita and his wife.

As a result, he fears he won't get home to Tuvalu until those three years are up.

Ambassador PITA: By the look of our current situation now, it seems that it would be impossible for me to go on leave, because there's no other deputy that can take over the office if I go on leave.

SHAPIRO: So Ambassador Pita is stuck here in New York - a man from one of the tiniest island countries in the world, population just 12,000 - stranded on one of the world's most crowded islands, Manhattan.

After work, he likes to stroll along the East River. He hasn't taken his wife and kids sightseeing yet, but here, close to the 12th-floor apartment where they live, he's found the spot where he can hear the water. In front of him is a majestic panorama of glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers - each seeming to jostle each other for a piece of the city skyline.

Here, at the walking path, dark waves lap at the shore barriers of cement and stone.

We're about six feet above the East River. Six feet - that's about as high as things get in Tuvalu, right?

Ambassador PITA: I would say this is about the highest spot in Tuvalu. And just imagine if one tidal wave, you know, strikes here without any other higher grounds on the island. You know, you don't have any other alternative place to go to.

SHAPIRO: For Pita, Tuvalu must always be a place he can go. To him, it's more than a dot on a map. It's a way of life, where people and nature live in a harmony that hasn't changed much in 2,000 years. He calls this the simple life.

Ambassador PITA: So living the simple lifestyle with a simple environment, depending on the nature of your surrounding environment - to me, I live more happier in living in that kind of environment rather than living in a tall building somewhere in Manhattan, you know?

SHAPIRO: And to protect that life, Ambassador Afelee Pita keeps trying to tell the world about the threat that climate change poses to one tiny nation of coral islands, in one of the most remote spots in the Pacific Ocean.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: If you'd like to discover more about the South Pacific, go to npr.org/climateconnections. And you can also see videos about climate change from public television's "Wild Chronicle."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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