September 22, 2021
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    Need for global unity

    November 08, 2019


    The economy of the Maldives has been greatly affected by the 2004 tsunami caused by the Indian Ocean earthquake; the environmental refugee crisis is the latest battle in their fight to prevent extinction. The tsunami that took a devastating toll of human life in other countries in the Indian Ocean luckily spared the inhabitants of the Maldives due to the country’s lack of a continental shelf, which prevented the high-speed build-up of waves crashing intensely onto its shores as it did in neighbouring India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Ambassador Ahmed Khaleel, the Permanent Representative of Maldives to the United Nations said, “While human toll of the tsunami resulted in 120 people dead, economically, the Maldives was hardest hit. We lost six seaports and our main source of freshwater. Over 68 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was wiped out within two minutes.”

    The lasting effects of the tsunami are an indication of how damaging rising sea levels actually are. After four years of recovering from the tsunami, evacuating people from sinking islands and saddled with a high debt to income, the Maldives experienced another round of assault when the food crisis hit two years later, followed by the global financial crisis. Yet, despite all these setbacks, the Maldives has been adapting strict environmental codes and is going green.

    Former President Mohamed Nasheed of the Republic of Maldives told the UN Chronicle, “We are investing money in capturing carbon with a bio-charge project and putting more money into renewable energy plants –windmills and solar panels –that we can harness.”

    Explaining how more than 30 percent of global carbon emissions come directly from buildings, former President Nasheed said, “We have been enforcing strict building codes that are reducing energy and increasing efficiency. In a sense, we will develop a survival kit that will also achieve our objectives.”

    The global financial crisis may further affect the resilience of small islands. In the first quarter of 2009, high-end tourism in the Maldives plunged 11 percent, according to Ambassador Khaleel. But, not all well-heeled tourists will cease to visit their favourite holiday spots. Climate change will stop tourists from visiting long before any enduring financial crisis. “Every crisis has a silver lining though,” Ambassador Khaleel said, adding, “time is something we cannot afford. We need things to be done as quickly as possible. For us, it means do-or-die.” Even with so many issues to grapple with, an economy so heavily reliant on tourism, the Maldives is doing a variety of things to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2020.

    The former President said, “There is no reason why no other country cannot do the same. We understand the costs involved to replace existing energy. We want to focus on what you should do, not what we should not.”


    The humanitarian issues facing the people of small island States who are internally displaced or evacuating their islands are being ignored by the international community, according to Ambassador Khaleel. Even with the threat of mass migration and litigation against major greenhouse polluters, the problem of climate change refugees has been left unresolved.

    Ambassador Khaleel observed, “the lack of fresh sources of water is a major issue that is creating tensions and causing refugees.” Under international law, people displaced by climate change are not recognized as a group with defined rights or as a group in need of special protection. They do not fall within the definition of the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore lack the same legal rights.

    After intense lobbying by the Maldives, small islands achieved a breakthrough on human rights in March 2008, when the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution that climate change “poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world.”

    “The message is that hope is not lost,” said Caleb Christopher, legal advisor to the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations, as he explained how the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in May, about the statelessness of populations on sinking islands.

    While climate change refugees may not have refugee rights, they are recognized under Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines a stateless person as: “A person who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law. Should a State cease to exist, citizenship of that State would cease, as there would no longer be a State of which a person could be a national.” The question is then the extent to which climate change could affect statehood.


    Back in New York, negotiators of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) who are increasingly looking to the West to take the lead are realizing that the focus of the developed world is primarily on China and India. Like the powerhouses in the East, Brazil is the third-largest emitter in the developing world, and it has similar concerns as China and India regarding climate change negotiations.

    Speaking to the UN Chronicle, Paulo Chiarelli, FirstSecretary at the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the United Nations said, “Brazil has mitigated climate change by investing heavily in renewable sources of energy, such as ethanol. We can provide an example to other countries on how to build a low-carbon economy. But, in order for developing countries to get there, financial and technological support from the developed countries is required.”

    But, questions of financial resources and technical support are where the negotiation stalemate is. Singapore is one Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) member concerned about the core issues that affect the SIDS. Ambassador Vanu Gopala Menon, the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told the UN Chronicle, “We believe that the biggest burden should be placed on countries that have polluted the most in the past. In particular, developed countries should help developing States, especially small island States.”

    The developed countries want firm commitments from developing countries before making any concession. But, Ambassador Menon said, “If you want the developing world to come on board, you have to make financing and technology available. It cannot be just a case of you (the developed countries) developing the technology and sending it to developing countries, expecting them to buy from you and attain the standards you want them to achieve.”

    While there has been an engagement of the international community on climate change, no one is willing yet to put actual numbers on the table. Christopher said, “Some countries do not want to be nailed without knowing what other countries are doing. This is the major reason why no one is agreeing on the text and what the exact table is going to look like.”

    According to Christopher, the two rounds of negotiation talks in June 2008 and again in August 2009 in Bonn, Germany, amounted to the narrowing down and streamlining of the 200-plus pages of the draft text. There was no quid pro quo. A few thousand square brackets remain as points of contention.

    The AOSIS believes that some countries must not engage in economic opportunism when dealing with climate change. Referring to these countries, Ambassador Wolfe said, “When it suited you, you endlessly polluted the Earth with greenhouse emissions to generate wealth and strengthen your economies, now you need to set the example and take the lead before you demand we take radical cuts.”

    Ambassador Jumeau said, “Where are these guys coming from? When poor countries come out as the villains, it is truly a sad state of affairs. We just do not see India and China in the same light. Pollution per capita in both these countries is fairly low. What is the carbon footprint of each Chinese compared to a person in the United States or elsewhere in the North?”

    Ambassador Jumeau went further to explain how countries in the North use per capita when it is most convenient for them, especially when figures are stacked up against them. One of the challenges in using per capita figures for small islands is that while they remain the most vulnerable to climate change, many will be graduating to a middle-income country, which means a lot of benefits will cease to exist, making their ability to adapt to climate change all the more daunting. Ambassador Khaleel said, “We are graduating in January 2010, but that does not reduce our vulnerability. It just makes matters worse.”

    In an interview with the UN Chronicle, Ambassador Carsten Staur, the Permanent Representative of Denmark to the United Nations said, “Of course, the problem has been created by industrialized countries. Now we are asking everybody to participate in resolving it. We know it is a tall order. On the other hand, even if there were no further emissions from countries to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we would still not be able to limit the increase in global temperature to two degree Celsius. So, developing countries and emerging economies will have to be part of the solution, with our support, of course.”

    But, developing countries approach climate change around the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which informs the UNFCCC and recognizes the differences in the historical contributions of developed and developing countries to global environmental problems. Ambassador Jumeau said, “If you are in a position to do something about climate change, lead by example. People with the means and capacity live in the West,” explaining how it would sound to turn around the developed world’s argument: “Since we are polluting the least, we should do the least,” he said.


    Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon refers to a time of ‘multiple crises’ where sudden hikes in fuel and food prices, the financial crisis, and the outbreak of flu are exacerbating the ability to safeguard against climate change. But, there is nothing inherent in global politics, technology, or the sheer availability of resources on the planet to prevent the social and ecological crises resulting from climate change, according to Jeffrey Sachs in his book Common Wealth.

    It is, according to Sachs, the barriers in the limited capacity to cooperate on a global level that is preventing a substantive agreement. Sachs writes, “The paradox of a unified global economy and divided global society poses the single greatest threat to the planet because it makes impossible the cooperation needed to address the remaining challenges.”

    Climate change is the most evident example of rapid globalization, according to Caleb Christopher. “This is a highly complex issue, probably the most challenging and unique issue of our time. Global cooperation is needed in order to succeed,” he said. UN Secretary General Ban, in his keynote speech to the World Federation of United Nations Associations, stressed that: “We have less than 10 years to halt the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences for people and the planet.”


    In the context of the aftermath of the financial crisis and the current global recession, “climate change is now a threat multiplier,” Ambassador Staur told the UN Chronicle, adding that “the cost of changing the ‘business as usual’ to a low-carbon society will require the commitment of all of us. But it will also be an opportunity for a new growth trajectory for the future.”

    Small islands have no choice but to commit themselves to an agreement. Many SIDS import 80 to 90 percent of what they consume, do not have enough land for agricultural self-sufficiency, are even more prone to global shocks, and do not have the luxury to write themselves a bailout stimulus cheque. Ambassador Jumeau said, “The financial crisis has weakened our resilience and ability to address climate change issues. At this critical juncture of survival, SIDS no longer have the capacity to respond to humanitarian evacuations, reconstruct their economies, and simultaneously deal with new battlegrounds created with sea-level rise.”

    Christopher explained that, bound by the UN Law of the Sea, rising sea levels would create far greater uncertainties that just islands and nearby coastal States. Many countries would experience a shift in their outer boundaries of the zones of valuable ocean territory, which could induce conflicting claims to ocean resources and rights. Even if SIDS could build sea walls to buttress their islands from escalating tides, they still would not be able to adapt to global carbon emissions forever, before they get swallowed into the sea.


    AOSIS leaders say that they lack the geopolitical leverage and economic powerhouse that other influential UN Member States bring to the negotiating table. Ambassador Jumeau asked, “What do we have? Yes, we are holiday spots, but if you lose one, there will always be another one to travel to. What else do we have? Tuna. Well, that will probably disappear before we do anyway.” This is why AOSIS advocates that the world has a moral obligation to make sure “no island State is left behind.” After negotiations, if the AOSIS proposal is considered, the immediate task will be to limit temperature increase for both short- and medium-term targets to less than 1.5 degree Celsius; for the long-term, it will be to redesign the system to a sustainable pattern of low-carbon economic growth.

    In the meantime, AOSIS countries are reaching the tipping point. “This is the mountain we are climbing. We are not scared. The deal won’t be perfect but the best deal is possible,” said Selwin Hart, First Secretary at the Permanent Mission of Barbados to the United Nations. “But if you listen to SIDS on climate change, you will get the best deal possible. By guaranteeing the existence of small island States, you save the entire global existence.”


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