Since 1999, photographer Gary Braasch has worked to document global warming around the world. His images bring home a concept that’s often hard to visualize. Today, as the Kyoto Protocol goes into effect, Braasch sends a dispatch and photos from Tuvalu, a Pacific island nation whose fate already hangs in the balance.

Photos: © Gary Braasch

They see a lot of rainbows in Tuvalu. But people disagree about whether they’re a sign of God’s protection or just a cruel reminder of this tiny country’s position in the world.

When I got to the capital, Funafuti, many of the friendly people who asked why I’d come looked at me blankly when I mentioned the tides. Most people in this tiny country — whose nine coral atolls are home to 11,000 people — are deeply religious. They expect to be protected; after all, God told Noah there would be no more floods, and created the rainbow as a sign of this covenant.

Some see things differently, though. The increasing intensity of tropical weather and the rise in ocean levels and temperatures — all documented results of global warming — are threatening to sink this island nation. Its citizens face the possibility of being among the first climate refugees. “Our whole culture will have to be transplanted,” says former assistant environment minister Paani Laupepa, now assistant secretary for foreign affairs.

The islands are not going to go under immediately. But “even if we are not completely flooded,” says Laupepa, “in 50 to 70 years we face increasing storms and cyclones, damage to our coral reefs, and flooding of our gardens.” Crop damage and decreased fish catch would mean “importing more food … and more health and diet problems,” he says.

This year, tides tore into Funafuti. Water covered the main road and drenched houses and churches. Salt water bubbled up through porous coral and turned the leaves of pulaka, a taro-like crop, yellow. Fishing was rendered dangerous to impossible.

Tuvalu, a nation since 1978, joined the U.N. in 1999 and is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol. Laupepa, for one, is angry at how things are playing out. “President Bush goes to war to protect his country, and talks of national security, but the security of my people is threatened by global warming,” he said to me. “How can you tell the American people that the way they live — having three cars, using so much energy — is endangering lots of small countries down the track?” The tide rose only a few meters away as he spoke.