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    Small islands, rising seas

    November 07, 2019

    “You know that with a sea-level rise of over 1.5 metres, hundreds of millions of people would be dead. They would simply be wiped out,” former President Mohamed Nasheed of the Republic of Maldives told the UN Chronicle just two days after he addressed world leaders at the 2009 UN General Assembly Summit on Climate Change.The threat posed by rising sea levels has been the centrepiece of climate change negotiations, the main issue emphasized by Small Island Developing States, also known as the SIDS.

    With less than a month to go until the December 2009, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, many who regard global warming as some vague phenomenon are perhaps beginning to wonder how their lives might be affected down the road. But there is no need to look into the future to see that SIDS are already threatened by escalating tides, cyclones, flooding, damaged crops, increased disease, the inundation of coastal areas and the loss of freshwater supplies. SIDS are indeed on the “front lines” of climate change. The post-industrial age of mass fossil fuel consumption has dramatically accelerated the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) to dangerous levels, damaging the environment and infrastructure of many SIDS and other low-lying regions.

    The poorer countries flanked by large bodies of water – who have contributed the least to global warming, including rapid sea-level rise – now find themselves at the precarious mercy of the historical polluters. Developed neighbours in the global North are losing their credibility very quickly, Ambassador Ronny Jumeau, Permanent Representative of Seychelles to the United Nations told the UN Chronicle. “Let’s say my neighbour flooded my house entirely on his own, while I didn’t contribute. Yet, I have to now borrow money from him, then pay him interest for the rest of my life, in order to clean the mess in my house that he is responsible for. This is dishonest.”

    The Seeds of an Alliance

    At the United Nations, 43 of the world’s smallest islands and low-lying coastal countries, representing the Member States most susceptible to change in climate, forged a coalition called the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). While AOSIS represents more than one-quarter of the world’s countries, together they account for less than one percent of global carbon emissions.

    Once the former President of the Republic of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, gave a dramatic speech referred to as the “Death of a Nation” at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the UN General Assembly in October 1987, the idea of a bloc of island nations gained momentum. Three years later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its first assessment on climate change coinciding with the 1990 Second World Climate Conference in Geneva, and SIDS was born. Ambassadors of small island States refer to President Gayoom as the “brainchild” of their coalition. Twenty-two years later, in the UN General Assembly Hall, former President Nasheed told world leaders that they must “discard the habits that have led to 20 years of complacency and broken promises on climate change,” made in 1990.

    Negotiating Positions vs. Interests

    At a press conference at UN Headquarters in July 2009, Ambassador Desama Williams, Permanent Representative of Grenada to the United Nations and the current chairperson of AOSIS, stressed the need to reduce the level of temperature increases to a figure less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, both as short and medium targets. She said, “Without adequate global commitments to make deep cuts to temperature increases caused by greenhouse gas emissions, small islands would be the first to be washed away into the sea.”

    To prevent islands from sinking into the ocean, each Member State should put aside the stand-off surrounding the thorny adaptation and mitigation issues and focus on their collective global interest. Thus far, positional arguments, a term in negotiations referring to arguing over precise numbers, have brought little success. What’s needed now to overcome the political challenges is an enduring and practical solution that all Member States can rally behind – a realistic and substantive climate policy that ensures economic growth and sustainable development in all regions of the world.

    But how can tiny islands such as Comoros or Palau carry enough bargaining chips to convince the international community to make this issue a call to action? The cruel irony, according to Ambassador Jumeau, is that SIDS find themselves in a tough bind if they talk any louder than they do: “We can’t go on a crusade around the world. The more noise we make, the more we scare away investors and tourists and destroy our own livelihood,” the Ambassador said.

    While these countries face limitations on how much they can blame the industrialized North, Ambassador Jumeau pointed out that “the climate change debate doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We maintain good relations with our former colonial masters, France and the United Kingdom, so we cannot just come out and bash them tomorrow. And we don’t have natural allies in the South either; even that requires fierce negotiations. So what you have is a group of increasingly frustrated States.”

    The Beacons of the World

    But while frustration may be prevalent among SIDS, they have been crucial drivers in pushing climate change on to the United Nations agenda and instrumental in reaching international agreements in the past. One example is the role Papua New Guinea played by bringing the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) into discussions during the December 2007 UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia. Essentially, the REDD forests-for-carbon credits initiative is meant to reduce emissions in developing countries by funding conservation, reforestation and poverty reduction while fighting climate change.

    Professor Graciela Chichilnisky of Columbia University, who was involved in the drafting of the Kyoto Protocol told the UN Chronicle, “While Papua New Guinea is a very tiny nation, it essentially pulled the United States into the Kyoto process with its intervention and accepted reforestation in exchange for carbon credits”.

    On the last day of the Bali conference, Kevin Conrad, a member of the Papua New Guinea delegation, responded after Paula Dobriansky, a U.S. delegate, noted any unwillingness by the U.S. to support the Bali Road Map. (The Map charts the course for a new negotiating process designed to tackle climate change, with the aim of completing this by 2009.) Conrad interjected, “There is an old saying: if you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of our way.” The room flooded with applause and several minutes later, Dobriansky reversed the position of the U.S.

    As a unified voice backed by the UN system, AOSIS is exemplary in the way it wields clout to reverberate its position and the way it strategizes on climate policy. Professor Chichilnisky explained the crucial role AOSIS plays in drafting climate policy. “Any agreement that the island States accept would be difficult for the G-77 (the group of developing countries) to reject. So in that sense, they have the decision-making power.” In an interview with the UN Chronicle, Ambassador Ahmed Khaleel, the Permanent Representative of Maldives to the United Nations said: “The success of AOSIS is that we share a common passion and have been strict about speaking with one voice and sticking with one voice. We don’t give in on key principles of climate change.”

    The Global Security Element

    Speaking to the UN Chronicle, former President Nasheed warned that the conflict over climate change could escalate, causing disruption to many parts of the world. “Countries are now under threat because of climate change and because of the stress climate change has on resources. It’s not just an environmental issue; it’s now about a global security issue.”

    The former President spoke about the global security element as a consequence of a significant milestone that a regional group of small island developing States from the Pacific reached when the General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the possible security implications of climate change. While the resolution, co-sponsored by all AOSIS members, is non-binding, it does represent a symbolic victory to establish moral weight and move climate change onto the agenda for the more powerful UN Security Council.

    In an interview with the UN Chronicle, Caleb Christopher, legal advisor to the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations, said his country’s position is that climate change is a threat to national security and global stability. The argument is that, essentially, if you lose one country that is a member of the United Nations, that in and of itself poses a serious international issue.

    Christopher contended that “based on the language of Article 1 of the UN Charter, there isn’t much of a distinction between a military army invading and sea-level rise sinking an island into extinction.” The relevance of climate change as a security matter is also important in how resources will be focused to reduce vulnerability to climate change.

    Imminent Danger: Point of No Return

    With climate change emerging as a security issue, one thing is certain, that the international community in 2009 has reached a global consensus: the scientific argument about whether global warming is real, is over. “With the effects of climate change real and immediate, those with dissenting views about the implications of global warming now have their head stuck in the sand,” Raymond Wolfe, the Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations told the UN Chronicle.

    “For the Caribbean region, hurricanes present a clear and present danger; they are occurring more intensely and at alarming levels.” In fact, the cost of Hurricane Ivan which struck the Caribbean Island of Grenada destroyed 90 percent of built infrastructure– nearly twice the value of the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). In addition to hurricanes, Ambassador Wolfe said, “We’ve also been hit by a triple tsunami – a food, energy, and financial crisis –all of which have been exacerbated by climate change.”
    (United Nations (UN Chronicle) - Part –1)

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