NATIONS: Island states mobilize to push climate talks

NATIONS: Island states mobilize to push climate talks (Thursday, September 26, 2013)

Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter

UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon still remembers being handed a life jacket when he visited the Republic of Kiribati a few years ago -- not on the airplane, he stressed, but at his hotel bedside.

The reminder of how low-lying the Pacific island nation is and how vulnerable it and others remain to rising sea levels caused by greenhouse gas emissions, Ban said, has stayed with him. "This island is sinking," Ban told world leaders of Kiribati on the sidelines of the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly. "That gave me a really strong conviction that we must solve this."

From Tuvalu to Barbados, tiny islands are starting to have an outsized impact on the climate debates. Often described as the canaries in the coal mines of global warming because they see some of the earliest impacts, islands have long been a moral authority in demanding action from industrialized countries. Increasingly, though, they are taking action themselves and encouraging the world to follow.

With a major conference slated for Samoa next year on the eve of a leaders' climate change summit that the secretary-general will convene in New York, and with the U.N. declaration of 2014 as the Year of Small Island Developing States, leaders said they are eager to show the world what climate change means for life in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian and Pacific oceans.

The conference in Samoa, U.N. officials said, will focus heavily on climate change and what islands need to protect against storms surges, floods and droughts wiping out the many strides countries have made in reducing poverty and developing infrastructure. Officials also pressed for galvanizing countries into agreeing to an ambitious climate treaty in 2015.

"For years now, many of us in this room have been saying that small island developing states can be a model of sustainable development for the world," said Republic of Nauru President Baron Divavesi Waqa, who represents the Alliance of Small Island States, a climate negotiating group.

"Never before has there been such an opportunity to mobilize the world behind small island developing state priorities," he said. "If islands are coordinated and vocal, then we can seize this unprecedented opportunity."

An escape from bargaining paralysis?

In some ways, the seizing has already begun. Earlier this month, the Marshall Islands hosted the Pacific Island Forum, focused almost exclusively on climate change. The resulting Majuro Declaration created emissions targets, renewable energy goals and fossil fuel reduction plans for every island in the region, down to tiny Tokelau, population 1,400. It avoided language that has paralyzed official climate negotiations, which ultimately helped it win broad support from industrialized nations.

Yesterday, the United States formally added to the list its target of 17 percent emissions reductions below 2005 levels this decade. Noting that the United States supports the declaration "in its efforts to enhance ambition," the Obama administration also highlighted the president's Climate Action Plan "to enhance efforts in furtherance of this commitment."

Marshall Islands Minister in Assistance to the President Tony de Brum said the pledge and letter from State Department Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern were "beyond my wildest expectations" of what the United States would offer.

New Zealand and Australia, both members of the Pacific Island Forum, also have put their targets in the Majuro Declaration. The European Union also joined in yesterday, and de Brum said he is hoping for a "domino effect." He argued that while most climate activists deride the pledges of industrialized nations -- already laid out in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord -- as too low, the new island-driven effort is different.

"This is a rejuvenation," de Brum said. After the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, and three more years of brutally divisive negotiations, he noted, "We began to feel very discouraged. And we said, 'Enough is enough. Let's move this thing along.'

"We are still smarting from the Copenhagen whip," he said. "This is a good way of getting out of that rut. If the big emitters see our declaration as a worthwhile exercise for them, as well, that alone is a step forward."

Hopes for a 'miracle' from Poland

In November, diplomats will meet in Warsaw for the next round of treaty negotiations. Countries have promised to sign an agreement in 2015 that will go into effect by 2020.

Few have been able to outline what exactly they hope to see done this year, and some island leaders said that is overwhelmingly because Poland, a coal-dependent country that has fought against higher E.U. greenhouse gas emissions targets, has pushed for a "clean coal" strategy at the talks.

"We know Poland as a country does not have ambition. They as a host country are not in a position to deliver," said Seychelles Ambassador Ronald Jean Jumeau. But, he said, "Let them surprise us. Miracles can happen."

Small islands are advocating for wealthy countries to ratchet up the amount of emissions they wipe out before 2020. Many also are pushing for a fund to compensate countries for natural disasters brought on by climate change.

De Brum said that more than any specific legal language this year, he wants to see the climate crisis move off the back burner to capture the highest level of political attention. As for a 2015 treaty, he distanced the Marshall Islands from other countries' push to raise what they call "pre-2020 ambition," saying that if nations can develop a strong treaty demanding significant emissions cuts through 2025, "we will have done what can be possibly done."

Meanwhile, Kiribati President Anote Tong said he is less and less concerned with treaty language as the seas swallow his homeland.

"We continue to talk about a legally binding agreement. That's no longer directly relevant for us," Tong said. He called for "morally binding" action and said islands need assistance now.

As for Secretary-General Ban's trip to Kiribati, Tong said he is glad the seriousness of climate change made an impression, but worried, "I think we have scarred him for the rest of his life."