Student Report on The Climate Emergency and Tuvalu’s Escape to the Metaverse: Challenging the Complicity of Design in Technological Solutionism

Cody Schmidt, class of 2025 

This event was hosted by HRC’s Citizenship Lab. The Citizenship Lab seeks to understand the transformation of citizenship and the ways in which citizenship is expressed through ecological, temporal, and spatial terms. The full event can be viewed here.

Dr. Nick Kelly and Professor Marcus Foth from the Queensland University of Technology joined Professor Robin Rodd from Duke Kunshan’s Citizenship Lab on March 9th to discuss the role of the metaverse in the politics of climate change. Based on their article published in The Conversation, the two began by explaining Tuvalu’s attempt to save their nation that has turned towards metaverse technologies. 

The country of Tuvalu consists of nine islands that house approximately 13,000 citizens. Due to global warming, rising sea levels threaten to place the country underwater, destroying the natural landscape, displacing Tuvuluans, and threatening thousands of years of history, culture, and language. In response to this development, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Culture Simon Kofe delivered an address at COP26 while thigh-deep in seawater. While this was effective at garnering media attention, the conference itself was lackluster in generating the meaningful climate change action necessary to save the country. 

At COP27, Minister Kofe returned with another address. He delivered this speech standing on a digital simulation of a beach, with his form and podium edited into this digital environment simulating a real seaside in Tuvalu. He outlined Tuvalu’s “Future Now” policy, which aims to secure the survival of Tuvalu through the creation of a digital version of the nation with metaverse technology, including a digital government with a virtual replica. This effort to save the country challenges the traditional concept of a nation, questioning the forms it can take and what features are necessary.  

Dr. Kelly and Prof. Foth elaborated on the role relationships that platforms have with nation-states, defining “platforms” as services that provide the user with a life in a digital landscape. A platform has the potential to provide the functions of a state, providing governmental functions without needing to be tethered to a physical location. Maps and their strict borders are only a recent phenomenon. This attempt at a virtual nation-state challenges this relatively new view of a countries’ location. 

The speakers outlined the three provocations this solution responds to, the first regarding the neoliberal policy trend concerning “green development” and “green architecture.” Despite the language of sustainability, many of these projects reinforce overall growth, creating net damages against the environment. This “greenwashing” allows for further harm committed under the guise of environmentalism. The second addresses issues with human-centered design. Everyday items are often highly convenient for humans, but are typically wasteful and unsustainable. In contrast, life-centered design puts humans at equal standing with other elements of an ecosystem, creating products that do not recognize a balance with nature. The third and final point outlines the highly popular neoliberal belief of the importance of individual actions, rather than those of institutions, in combating climate change. This use of technological solutionism serves as an alternative, creating the institutional change necessary to effectively curb the threat. By challenging what defines a nation and society’s approach to survival, a new set of solutions can be generated.