Tuvalu is planning to create a version of itself in the metaverse as a response to rising sea levels.

Simon Kofe, Tuvalu's minister for justice, communication, and foreign affairs, made the announcement via a chilling digital address to leaders at COP 27

The plan involves creating a digital twin of Tuvalu in order to replicate its beautiful islands and preserve its rich culture.

The tragedy of this outcome cannot be overstated […] Tuvalu could be the first country in the world to exist solely in cyberspace – but if global warming continues unchecked, it won't be the last.

The idea is that the metaverse might allow the people of Tuvalu to live in another country.

Two stories are here. A small island nation in the Pacific is trying to preserve its nationhood by using technology.

The preferred future for Tuvalu would be to avoid the worst effects of climate change and preserve itself as a country. This could be its way of getting the attention of the world.

What is a metaverse nation?

The future of augmented and virtual reality is represented by the metaverse. There are many visions of what the metaverse could look like, with the most well-known coming from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The idea that the metaverse is about interoperability and 3D worlds is a common one. It's as easy to move from one virtual world to another as it is to move from one room to another.

For better or for worse, the goal is to obscure the human ability to distinguish between the real and the virtual.

Three aspects of the nationhood could be recreated in the metaverse.

  1. Territory – the recreation of the natural beauty of Tuvalu, which could be interacted with in different ways
  2. Culture – the ability for Tuvaluan people to interact with one another in ways that preserve their shared language, norms and customs, wherever they may be
  3. Sovereignty – if there were to be a loss of terrestrial land over which the government of Tuvalu has sovereignty (a tragedy beyond imagining, but which they have begun to imagine) then could they have sovereignty over virtual land instead?

Could it be done?

Tuvalu's proposal is symbolic of the dangers of climate change, but what would it look like?

It's easy to make beautiful, immersive and richly rendered recreations of Tuvalu's territory.

Thousands of different online communities and 3D worlds show it's possible to maintain your own culture in a virtual space.

Combining technological capabilities with features of governance is possible.

Prior experiments of governments taking location based functions and creating virtual analogues have been done. E-residency is an online-only form of residency for non-Estonians in the country.

Virtual embassies can be found on the online platform Second Life.

There are significant technological and social challenges in bringing the elements together.

It is a technical challenge to have so many people interact in a virtual world. There are issues of bandwidth, computing power, and the fact that a lot of people suffer nausea.

Nation-states can be translated to the virtual world, but no one has shown that. Others think the digital world makes nation-states redundant.

A message in a bottle is what the proposal to create a digital twin in the metaverse is about. There is a message for other people who might retreat to the virtual as a response to loss from climate change.

The metaverse is no refuge

The metaverse is built on physical infrastructure. Physical maintenance and energy are required for all of this tech.

The internet will consume 20% of the world's electricity by the year 2025, according to research.

The idea of the metaverse nation as a response to climate change is what got us here. New technologies such as "cloud computing", "virtual reality", and "metaverse" come across as both clean and green.

Tech solutionism and greenwashing are included in these terms. Technology responses to climate change often make the problem worse due to how energy and resources are used.

So where does that leave Tuvalu?

The metaverse isn't an answer to the problems of Tuvalu. We need to reduce the impacts of climate change through initiatives such as a fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty, according to him.

The video about moving to the metaverse was a huge success. His plea while standing knee-deep in rising water received worldwide press.

Kofe suggests something.

Without a global conscience and a global commitment to our shared wellbeing we may find the rest of the world joining us online as their lands disappear.

It is dangerous to think that moving to the metaverse is a solution to climate change. The metaverse can help in preserving heritage and culture. It isn't likely to work as a nation-state.

It will not work without all of the land, infrastructure, and energy that keeps the internet working.

It would be better if we focused on the other initiatives described in the report.

The project's first initiative promotes diplomacy based on Tuvaluan values of olaga fakafenua (communal living systems), kaitasi (shared responsibility) and fale-pili (being a good neighbor), in the hope that these values will motivate other nations to understand their shared responsibility to address climate change and sea level rise to achieve global wellbeing.

The message in a bottle is not about the possibility of metaverse nations. To support communal living systems, to take responsibility, and to be a good neighbor are all part of the message.

The first one cannot be translated into the virtual world. The second and third require us to care.

Nick Kelly and Marcus Foth are professors at theQueensland University of Technology.

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