President Obama may well decide the fate of entire societies, such as the one on Ifaluk Island, when he attends the last day of the international climate change conference in Copenhagen tomorrow. The small island nations that will be submerged forever when global warming raises sea levels have been making a forceful case since the conference opened on the 7th. They argue that the industrialized countries must make drastic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions if they are to survive. The question is whether Obama, or the other world leaders who are slated to attend, will listen.
Obama has already stated that the United States will make a commitment to reduce American greenhouse gasses approximately 17 percent by 2020 over its 2005 level. That amount is clearly too much for his Republican opponents in the US Congress, who decry the establishment of any mandatory emission levels. Representative Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee argues that emission targets would harm American economic competitiveness and foster much higher prices for energy.
Opposition by conservative Americans represents only a fraction of the wealth of opinions being expressed in Copenhagen. India and China, counting on a future that includes their continuing use of highly polluting industries to help them become richer, oppose severe emission targets that they believe will hamper their industrial growth. The highly developed countries favor only mild targets for emission cuts.
The really vocal countries have been the ones that are most threatened by rising sea waters, joined by the very poorest African nations that face increasing drought and desertification from climate changes. Delegations advocating the toughest standards against greenhouse gasses are the 43 nations that have formed an Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)—countries with a substantial amount of territory that will soon be submerged and uninhabitable.
The delegates from Tuvalu have been among the prime spokespersons for the group. Mataio Mataio, head of the Department of Environment in Tuvalu, commented on Tuesday last week that “climate change is real to us. It’s happening now. It’s a threat to our existence.” He argued that his country is already feeling the effects of rising sea levels, with worsening coastal erosion and increased flooding.
He suggested one solution: richer countries that have caused global warming should provide much more financial aid to the poorer countries that are going to be badly affected. However, a panel of European experts reacted skeptically. The “constant [portrayal] of Tuvalu as a doomed, disappearing nation might compromise its potential for future development,” their report stated.
Ian Fry, another representative from Tuvalu, garnered widespread news attention when he made an emotional appeal during the first week of the conference for the AOSIS draft. “I woke up this morning crying, and that’s not easy for a grown man to admit,” he said, as he choked up in front of the plenary session. “The fate of my country rests in your hands.” Todd Stern, a special climate representative from the US, was dismissive, referring to the AOSIS proposal as “constructive” but “unbalanced.”
The Federated States of Micronesia—Ifaluk is an outer island of the state of Yap in the FSM—made its own appeals. Like Tuvalu and many of the other states in AOSIS, many of the atolls in Micronesia are slowly disappearing beneath the waves. A scholarly report earlier this year described in detail the consequences of rising seas—what is happening right now—on the low-lying islands of FSM. Masao Nakayama, Permanent Representative from FSM to the United Nations, amplified the consequences to his country in a news interview. He was born and raised on a low-lying atoll in the country, so he spoke from personal experience.
“The threat is to our existence, survival, not only as a people [but] as a culture….We now have just flat beaches—the wash comes in and hits the roots of coconut trees,” he said. “It’s very scary, it’s very frightening.” The prediction by scientists that the Micronesians should expect sea-level rises of from three to six feet or more in the next 90 years mean the end of many islands, the highest points of which are not too far above that higher prediction.
“Even a small rise of 1 meter … would … have a devastating effect,” Nakayama said. “If it gets to a meter or higher, [many of] the islands would [become] uninhabitable.” He discussed various aspects of climate change, but rising seas are his worst nightmare. “You cannot put sea walls on all the islands—about 600 of them [in the FSM].”
Nakayama may not have choked up the way the Tuvalu representative did, but he was just as eloquent. “It’s going to be very sad for us to lose all that ancestry and homes—where we’ve grown and maintain our culture,” he said. He was asked where they would go. “We don’t want to go anywhere,” he replied. “We want to stay on our islands, and this is what we want the international community to understand.”
The AOSIS countries are advocating, strenuously, that the conference should adopt a target of no more than a 1.5 degree Celsius raise in global temperatures, not the 2.0 target that many other countries feel is more realistic. Ambassador Nakayama believes that other countries have written them off—and he may be right.
A prominent Australian economist, Ross Garnaut, was quoted last week saying that it was inevitable that the small island nations would have to relocate their peoples to countries like New Zealand or Australia when sea levels rise. It was good that the conference had highlighted their problems, he said, but other countries, such as Bangladesh, had far more people who would be flooded out of their homes by rising waters.
Places like Micronesia— Ifaluk Island—might become uninhabitable, but so what, he seemed to be saying. Strategy sessions, protests, walkouts, drafts and counter drafts have dominated the news coming from Copenhagen. The Micronesians and the other islanders will get a sense of their fate when President Obama addresses the conference.