Engulfed by Rising Seas, Islands Gain Moral Voice at UN

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An Atoll in the Maldives
Eighty percent of the land mass of the Maldives is less than 1 meter above sea level. Source: Digital Light Source/UIG via Getty Images

Spanning only 10 square miles, Tuvalu is at risk of being submerged by the sea, a prospect that has given the tiny island nation at outsized voice in the global warming debate.

Low-lying atolls from Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean are at risk of being wiped out entirely in the coming decades by rising seas and extreme weather.

That puts them at the forefront of climate change, and the island states are making an emotional case for the world to act at United Nations talks on carbon emissions. Their stance has been buttressed by the typhoon that blasted the Philippines in recent days.

“No national leader in the history of humanity has ever faced this question: ‘Will we survive or will we disappear under the sea?’” Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said yesterday at the annual UN climate conference in Lima. “Climate change is the single greatest challenge facing my country. It is threatening to our lives, our security and the wellbeing of every single human being living on the Tuvalu islands.”

Sopoaga told delegates that climate change keeps him awake at night because humans risk creating “hell on Earth.”

The world is on course to warm by as much as 4.8 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, according to UN scientists. That will raise the level of the oceans as glaciers and polar icecaps melt, and also because water expands as it heats up.

“They have traditionally been a very powerful voice -- they’re the moral voice,” Christiana Figueres, the diplomat stewarding the UN conference, said in an interview in Lima. “They are the ones that are most urgently vulnerable.”

Rising Seas

The islands have had three tangible victories at the UN talks, which will help shape the debate on global warming in the coming years. Last year, they won a two-decade effort to create a mechanism for climate-related losses and damages.

Three years ago, they persuaded envoys to open a new workstream examining how industrial nations can make deeper cuts to fossil fuel emissions before 2020. They’ve also kept alive the ambition of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, effectively preventing watering down of the current target for no more than 2 degrees of warming.

If the islands are pushy, it’s because they have the most to lose. Sea levels have already risen by about 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) since 1901 and are likely to rise another 26 centimeters to 82 centimeters this century, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last month after conducting its biggest-ever assessment of climate science.

Biggest Threat

That poses a significant threat to a country like the Maldives, where 80 percent of the land mass is less than 1 meter above sea level, and 42 percent of the population lives within 100 meters of the sea. Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands have similar topographies.

Nauru, another Pacific nation, is facing erosion from rising seas that’s threatening a population that lives mainly along the coast, said Marlene Moses, that country’s envoy and the chairwoman of the 44-member Alliance of Small Island States, or Aosis.

“At less than 1 degree of warming we are seeing consequences far worse than what scientists forecast just a few years ago,” said Moses. “Certainly for some small islands it will mean the difference between adapting to a difficult but manageable life and catastrophe.”

Population Evicted

The Marshall Islands are more vulnerable than most. As many as 1,200 of its 55,000 people have already had to relocate, and some smaller islands have disappeared beneath the waves, said Foreign Minister Tony de Brum. A demographic problem of the same scale in the U.S. would force 7 million people to move.

“We have droughts up north and floods in the south; we have coral bleaching and salinization” of the soil, de Brum said in an interview from Honolulu as he traveled to Lima. “It’s all occurring now. This is not a future prediction. It’s a current problem.”

Aosis punches above its weight in the UN talks partly because all agreements must be reached by consensus. They’re also the human face of the impacts of climate change.

“They’ve historically been such a vocal leader on this that they carry weight in the negotiations,” said Jake Schmidt, who follows the talks for the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. “Their voice has become even more powerful as the impacts are being felt.”

Draft Documents

With temperatures already 0.8 degrees higher than at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the island states are fighting hardest to contain further warming because each fraction of a degree is a greater threat to their existence than in other counties.

While envoys have endorsed a target to cap warming at 2 degrees, the islands in 2010 secured a concession to have the goal periodically reassessed, with a view to target 1.5 degrees.

Draft documents circulated two days ago by the UN outlining proposed elements of next year’s deal mention the lower temperature, a testament to the ability of the islands to keep alive the more ambitious goal.

While an overabundance of salt water poses the biggest risk to the lowest-lying states, increasing shortages of freshwater are also stretching authorities as rainfall patterns become less predictable.

The islands are “the canary in the coal mine” of climate change, according to Alden Meyer of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists. “They’re on the front line, the ones being hit, and it’s an existential threat.”

Fire and Water

That was thrown into sharp relief last week in the Maldives, known for its single-island luxury resorts. A fire at the nation’s main desalination plant cut off water supplies in Male, the capital, said Ahmed Sareer, the nation’s ambassador to the UN.

“The water crisis in Male further highlights how vulnerable small island states with no natural fresh water sources can be,” Sareer said in Lima. “We are not really seeing the rainfall that we used to get in the past, and therefore we are running out of water.”

Further south, the Seychelles has also faced water scarcity from shorter, more intense rainy seasons, according to its envoy, Ronny Jumeau. The nation’s main reservoir is just 39 percent full now, at a time when it should be brimming.

Other threats come from rising temperatures and increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, which makes the seas more acidic, and threatening coral reefs, he said in an interview in Lima.

“It’s the loss of nurseries for fish. It’s the loss of a diving area for tourism,” Jumeau said. “How do you quantify the loss of an entire reef?”

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