Few were surprised last week by the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference, though plenty of diplomats and world leaders claimed they had made important strides.
Hopes expressed early in the conference, that President Obama might somehow lead the developed nations in halting global warming, that he even might be sensitive to the plight of countries that are being destroyed, proved to be wishful thinking. Like everyone else, he represented a country with its own set of priorities. His pledges, cloaked in grandiose language, were minimal, even compared with those of the other industrialized nations. He clearly confined his proposals to limit climate-changing gas emissions so they would not exceed a bill already passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. His priority was getting something started.
Many issues dominated the news last week. Could the United States push China into allowing verification measures for their proposed greenhouse gas emission cuts? Could the U.S. and the other developed nations provide enough funding to assist the victim nations of global warming? Could the conference agree on a treaty that would establish binding targets for attempting to reduce climate changes?
The developed nations ignored the desperate pleas by the small island countries, that the conference should mandate a 1.5 degree Celsius cap on rising temperatures, rather than the 2.0 degree limit that the developed nations angled toward. While the press focused on many such issues, the plight of the small island nations that are disappearing into the sea did not fade entirely.
Time magazine published a story last week on Ifaluk, as an example of the problems that nations such as the Federated States of Micronesia are facing. The Time reporter interviewed people on Ifaluk, and nearby islands, to get their perspective on what is happening. The article confirmed earlier reports: these small atolls are already confronting serious problems.
The reporter discussed the situation with Manno Pekaicheng, one of the chiefs on Ifaluk. The chief placed the blame for the rising seas directly on the developed countries. “The big countries are contaminating the whole universe,” he said, “and it’s getting us before it gets them.” Mr. Pakaicheng was not able to go to Copenhagen, but he proposed a solution to the reporter. The rich countries should either send them a ship that they could live on, or give them enough money so they could purchase land somewhere else. Since neither appears to be happening, he said he is putting their fate in the hands of God—and he hopes that the countries that are causing the problem will assist them.
Henry Tasumwaali, a spear fisherman on the nearby atoll of Falalis, pointed out the principal taro patch on his island. He showed the reporter the wilting taro leaves, similar to the ones on Ifaluk, which are brown and yellow due to rotten roots that were damaged from extremely high waves last year. Mr. Tasumwaali told the reporter, “There is nowhere we can go. When the wave comes again, maybe we will wash away from our island, swimming like a sea turtle in the big ocean.”
Some scientists contend that conditions are worse in the western Pacific than elsewhere on earth. One report just issued on November 24th argued that the sea could rise as much as 3.5 to 6.5 feet by the end of this century. Between 1993 and 2008, the western Pacific rose more rapidly than other ocean locations, about 4 inches, well above the global average of 1.7 inches.
Dr. Rolph Payet, a prominent climate scientist who comes from the Seychelles, an island nation near Africa, said that the human inability to change is the key to continued existence for places such as Ifaluk. “Adaptation and survival that has developed over thousands of years now has to change overnight,” he said. His perspective could be turned around, however. Could the developed nations ever change their own unbridled faith in the limitless use of natural resources and the transcendent importance of growth?