As climate change threatens island nations, some turn to digitizing their history – PBS NewsHour

Leave your feedback
As hurricanes grow stronger and more common due to climate change, they raise new threats for island nations — not just to infrastructure, but also to artifacts and documents that help define cultures. Now, two island nations in the Atlantic and the Pacific are taking steps to preserve their threatened histories for future generations. Ali Rogin reports.
Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.
Lisa Desjardins:
The damage from Hurricane Beryl, the earliest storm like it in 100 years, highlights concerns about climate change, especially on vulnerable island nations. Beryl is currently headed toward Texas after devastating the Grenadines in Jamaica.
A storms like these have grown stronger and more common. They raise new threats for island nations, not just to infrastructure, but also to artifacts and documents that help define cultures. Ali Rogan is back with this report on two island nations in the Atlantic and Pacific taking steps to preserve their threatened histories for future generations.
Simon Kofe, Foreign Affairs Minister, Tuvalu:
Talofa and warm Pacific greetings from Tuvalu.
Ali Rogin:
In 2022, Tuvalu’s foreign affairs minister addressed the COP27 Climate Conference from the sandy beaches of his tiny island nation. At least that’s what it looks like at first. But then the camera zooms out for an eerie revelation.
Simon Kofe:
Our digital nation will provide an online presence that can replace our physical presence and allow us to continue to function as a state.
Ali Rogin:
He was not on the island itself, but rather a copy that only exists in the virtual world, a preview of what he said might soon be the only remaining version of his country.
Tapugao Falefou, Tuvalu Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations: We are here talking about the worst case scenario when Tuvalu is no longer exists.
Ali Rogin:
Doctor Tapugao Falefou is the ambassador and permanent representative of Tuvalu to the United Nations. He says that worst case scenario is an increasing reality for his country and its culture.
Tapugao Falefou:
Tuvalu within this century will be engulfed by the ocean, will be submerged, and so how can we maintain our statehood? How can we preserve our cultural heritage, our identity?
Ali Rogin:
Tuvalu’s future now project is intended to not just preserve the past, but to protect the country’s future, making sure its nearly 12,000 people can still claim citizenship and have access to government services, even if the physical country no longer exists.
So far, 26 countries have recognized the so called digital statehood. Tuvalu isn’t alone. Other island nations are taking on similar projects, even if they aren’t at immediate risk of disappearance.
Peter Scholing, National Library of Aruba: We have a responsibility to safeguards our collections, our island’s history, our cultural history. It’s becoming more important than ever on.
Ali Rogin:
The island of Aruba, Peter Scholing is digitizing the national library.
Ali Rogin:
How does climate change factor into the decision to take on this project?
Peter Scholing:
We’ve started digitizing not specifically because of imminent danger, but yeah, with temperatures also rising, that might be a bigger factor in the future.
Ali Rogin:
Aruba is not at risk of imminent disappearance, but past natural disasters underscore the need to protect fragile documents and objects. The database is filled with maps from Aruba’s colonial past, 3D artifacts, television shows, and documents describing its history and culture.
Tawata e Grupo UTC.
Kate Knibbs, Senior Writer, Wired:
Countries that are vulnerable to climate change are becoming keenly aware that the physical objects that are in their libraries and archives and museums are vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather, extreme heat.
Ali Rogin:
Journalist Kate Knibbs has written about Aruba’s digitization project for WIRED magazine.
Kate Knibbs:
A book that was printed 500 years ago is not going to be in the same condition 500 years from now. So I just think this is a moment where a lot of different institutions are realizing that getting a digital backup is a smart thing to do.
Ali Rogin:
An ancillary benefit to these digital backups easier access worldwide.
Adi Martis, Historian and Author: I wish I was younger. Ten years youngest, 20 years youngest, because there still is a lot of research to be done.
Ali Rogin:
Adi Martis is an Aruban born historian and author who lives in the Netherlands. He frequently searches Aruba’s digital archives while doing research on Aruba’s history, the first draft of which was controlled mainly by colonizers.
Adi Martis:
Recently, the history was written with a European vision Eurocentrism. I’m interested in how people live and the common people, and what they ate, how the food came to Aruba, how they work, how much they earn. I’m interested in other things than the European historians who came and wrote about our history.
Ali Rogin:
Using Aruba’s archive, he’s been able to tell the stories of enslaved people and even reunite some of their living relatives.
Adi Martis:
You can find a lot of information when the slave was born, when they sold them or her to someone else, when they moved in another country or the same country, when maybe died. You can even generate family trees.
Ali Rogin:
Aruba is working with the Internet Archive, a U.S. based nonprofit focused on providing free access to information online and the home of the popular wayback machine.
Kate Knibbs:
The Internet Archives overarching goal is just to digitize the entire world. I guess it’s similar to Wikipedia in how you can end up going down rabbit holes and learning a bunch of information that you never anticipated or never thought you would be interested in learning.
Ali Rogin:
These virtual archives serve as a rich trove for curious researchers. But at their core, they are a response to an existential threat and an international distress signal.
Tapugao Falefou:
The pace through which we are going through the impact of climate change, and especially sea level rise, is something that is very alarming and that we can only ask the international community to please pick up speed on how best we can address this.
Ali Rogin:
Bringing more awareness to their countries through the digital world, even as their physical one is disappearing. For PBS News Weekend, I’m Ali Rogin.
Watch the Full Episode
Apr 09
By Jeffrey Brown, Mary Fecteau, Mike Fritz
Feb 28
By Kenichi Serino
Sep 30
By Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, Associated Press
Oct 22
By Justin Scuiletti

Ali Rogin is a correspondent for the PBS News Hour and PBS News Weekend, reporting on a number of topics including foreign affairs, health care and arts and culture. She received a Peabody Award in 2021 for her work on News Hour’s series on the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect worldwide. Rogin is also the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and has been a part of several teams nominated for an Emmy, including for her work covering the fall of ISIS in 2020, the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017, the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2014, and the 2010 midterm elections.

Andrew Corkery is a national affairs producer at PBS News Weekend.

Azhar Merchant is Associate Producer for National Affairs.
Support Provided By: Learn more
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
© 1996 – 2024 NewsHour Productions LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Stay Connected
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal with Lisa Desjardins
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Learn more about Friends of the News Hour.
Support for News Hour Provided By