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Representing Climate Change Space: Islographs of Tuvalu

posted on 2023-05-26, 14:22 authored by Carol Farbotko
Tuvalu, an archipelagic nation state in central Oceania, is being materially transformed by anthropogenic climate change, particularly sea level rise. Its islands are also being represented in new ways in climate change discourses such as journalism and environmentalist campaigns. This study, located in the interdisciplinary field of island studies, draws from insights in cultural geography to examine representations of the Tuvalu islands in climate change discourses. The central concept in this work?s analytical framework is the islograph: shared, non-static imaginations of islands, mediated through words, images and symbols. I have found it useful to create and use the concept of the islograph to emphasise the important role of island representations in climate change power relations, constituted in part by discursive means. In a significant discursive moment in which climate change is being defined and grappled with as a global environmental crisis, Tuvalu is taking on new meanings that command documentation and critical analysis. Such meanings are tied to an extant and remarkably strong presence of islands in Western discourses. I argue that there are two key characteristics of Western islographs. First, islands are paradoxical spaces and second, islands are imaginative geographies, mechanisms of relational identity construction that paradoxically function as mirrors of the self and a means of identity construction in relation to distant and different others. Subsequent analysis of Tuvalu?s islographs - many of which are produced by Westerners in climate change discourses - considers whether and how its islands are paradoxical spaces and imaginative geographies. Islographs of Tuvalu that are analysed in detail in this work include the following: Mark Lynas' popular science monograph High Tide, which aims to redefine Tuvalu as a frontier of climate change and a spur to action on climate change at the global level; various activities of environmentalist non-government organisation Alofa Tuvalu which try to reposition Tuvalu as the rightful space in which global lessons for sustainable living are to be learned; Sydney Morning Herald articles, where, as the islands disappear, Tuvaluans are transformed into environmental refugees and yet Western tourists are also urged to turn a voyeuristic eye towards the ?disappearing islands?; and interviews with participants in climate change discourses. I demonstrate that in such discourses, Tuvalu?s islographs are structured by a paradox: its islands constituted as separate from and yet embedded in global climate change trajectories; its inhabitants simultaneously identified as subjects of compassion and objects of voyeurism. Such a paradox is embodied in recurring images of Tuvalu as valuable yet expendable - the ?canary in the coalmine? of climate change for Earth. Meanwhile, among professionals in Tuvalu who are engaged in climate change debate - politicians, bureaucrats, community elders, educators, journalists, and pastors - attempts are being made to reclaim Tuvalu as inherently valuable space. Their islographs link Tuvalu to the rest of planet Earth not in service to it as a litmus test, but connected to and embedded in common rights and responsibilities of humanity to advance environmental stewardship and cultural diversity.





School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences


University of Tasmania

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