Climate Change and the Worlds Fragile Islands

Considered from the low-lying point of view of Pacific islanders or circumpolar-dwelling Inuit, the Kyoto Protocol on environmental protection seems an exploitative deal between those in the North who already pollute heavily and those in the South who want to do the same.


Some 600 idyllic islands in the South Pacific make up Micronesia; perhaps not so idyllic any more, as in recent years half of the 150,000 inhabitants have had their houses damaged or destroyed by storms more frequent and violent than before. Sea levels rose in the region through the second half of the 20th century, and this, linked with exceptionally high tides and unpredictable rain, exacerbated the intensity of the storms. As coastal erosion increases, salt creeps into the water table and ruins plantations, while rising temperatures nurture parasites that attack copra plants.

Joseph Komo, a member of the official Micronesian delegation to the ninth United Nations conference on climate change in Milan last December, says: "We are the first people to die as a direct result of climate change." He went to Milan to plead with the international community to speed up the release of promised funds for vulnerable countries to protect themselves from the effects of global warming.

The demands of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) are clear: urgent action to safeguard food resources, build desalination plants and dykes and develop solar energy. Since its creation in 1994, AOSIS has been a highly active lobby of 43 tiny island nations from the Caribbean to the Pacific via the Mediterranean and the South China Seas. All are on the front line because of the consequences of climate change.

The Maldives are preparing for the worst. Work has begun on an artificial island: Hulhumale is being built 2 metres above sea level, 20 minutes from the archipelago's overcrowded capital, Malé; it should eventually be home to 100,000 people. It is surrounded by coral reefs, bathed in the warm currents that flow around the islands. But the reefs are under serious threat from rising sea levels, surface water temperatures and violent storms, as successive reports from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have confirmed.

The islanders' demands are seconded by another vulnerable group: the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), which represents 155,000 Inuits from Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia. Its president, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, used the Milan conference to announce ICC plans to bring a legal action before the UN Commission on Human Rights. The ICC accuses countries that have refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol (1) - United States, Russia and Australia - of violating human rights by imperilling the ancestral ways of life of the North Pole's aboriginal people.

"Today, the earth is changing under our feet," says Watt-Cloutier. Canadian climatologists are predicting the unthinkable: 50 years from now, the northwest passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Northern Canadian islands will be completely ice-free in summer.

The inhabitants of the frozen north are in the same boat as the Micronesians of the tropics, a reminder that climate disturbances affect the entire global system. The experts warn that after thermal expansion, the melting of glaciers and ice caps is likely to be one of the main causes of rises in sea level in the 21st century (2). From the poles to the Maldives, every area of our biosphere is linked, along with all the creatures that live in it. But the areas most vulnerable to climate change are on the fringes of the industrialised world, an injustice worsened by the fact that these regions' contribution to global warming is minimal, while that of the Northern industrialised countries is massive.

From a logical mathematical perspective, each individual should be entitled to an equal share in our eco-system. As the biosphere can recycle 3 gigatonnes (3bn tonnes) of carbon a year, the sustainable average is estimated at half a tonne of greenhouse gas a year for each person worldwide. The average resident of Burkina Faso could increase his or her production of greenhouse gases fivefold from a current 100kg. A US citizen ought to pollute 10 times less than the current average of 5,000kg a year (3).

Clearly, the polluting countries are already too heavily industrialised to have any hope of meeting a target of equal pollution around the globe even without taking past emissions into account. And emissions from large, rapidly developing countries such as India, China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia will increase substantially over the next few years. It is predicted that their emissions will equal those of the industrialised countries by 2050. Their development may reduce the discrepancy between the rich and poor world, but it defies environmental concerns. If some of the IPCC's more alarming predictions are accurate, there would be a meteorological catastrophe in the name of equality.

Yet countries such as China and India do not want to consider emission reductions until the industrialised countries reduce their own pollution. At the 2002 climate conference in Delhi, the Indian environment minister, T R Balu, provoked a row by refusing to talk of reductions targets that might apply to countries like India. The small island states felt betrayed by this intransigence.

The disparity between North and South is exacerbated by disagreements between Southern countries. The Group of 77 (4) represents diverse interests often diametrically opposed over environmental concerns.The great deforesters, China and Brazil, and the Opec member states, generally oppose regulation. The Opec states even demand financial compensation for potential losses in oil revenue in the event of a reduction in fossil fuel use. On the other side are the most vulnerable countries, such as Mozambique, which suffered severe flooding in 2000, and the Pacific micro-states, which have acquired political weight by turning themselves into symbols.

With multilateralism stalled, mostly because of US isolationism, the fight against climate change begins to look like an international political sham. The Kyoto Protocol, heir to the 1992 United Nations framework convention on climate change, was signed in 1997. Since then it has been collectively re-interpreted and explained endlessly. Its aim, to guarantee climate stability for future generations, has been buried under casuistry from mostly Western "experts".

It has been said that these interminable talking shops keep the discussion process alive and that even a sham is better than nothing. The Protocol is responsible for an important innovation: economic mechanisms that put a price on the tonne of carbon emissions. Thanks to these, the atmosphere is no longer free, but can be traded on the international market. Theoretically all we need to do is ensure that the rarity and fragility of this commodity is reflected in its price.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is the only tool of North/South cooperation proposed by the Protocol. It allows for industrialised countries to get additional emissions rights by helping reduce pollution in Southern countries. Governments, businesses and other organisations in the North provide funding and expertise for projects in the South that aim to reduce pollution through the use of environmentally-friendly technology, such as solar and water power, cogeneration plants and cleaner fuels. The emissions they helped prevent abroad are then added to their own rights.

The 2003 talks in Milan made much of the advantages these CDM schemes might have for Southern countries. Yet from a geopolitical perspective the idea is based on a view of these countries as passive recipients of a system designed to free emissions credits for industrialised countries - as many as their investors want. The only motivation for these investors is the value - traded in carbon dioxide equivalents - of the avoided emissions.

The CDM is unlikely to affect Micronesians or Inuit, since they pollute too little to be of any interest to investors looking for credits. But the big developing countries have much to gain from the scheme and it was the possibility of attracting investment through the CDM that ultimately persuaded China to ratify the Protocol, which it did in 2002. Canada has been its most active partner, financing carbon sequestration projects, solar and micro-hydraulic power and clean-up schemes for coal-fired power stations.

The value of avoided emissions is inherently hard to work out, the more so in countries such as China and Brazil, which are waiting for a special climate change fund to cover the costs of calculating their emissions. With a derisory budget of $50m a year, this fund, managed by the Global Environmental Facility, may be active from 2005. Its primary objective is to assist the most threatened countries to adapt to climate change. Micronesians and Inuit will just have to muddle through unless they manage to get involved with the South South North Project (SSN), one of the most encouraging recent initiatives to have emerged from climate politics.

This is a network of organisations, research institutions, lawyers and consultants from South Africa, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Brazil, who have come together to promote an ecologically sustainable vision of development and put the Protocol's mechanisms to good use (5). The SSN hopes to carry out CDM projects that will benefit local people by facilitating deserving ecological development ventures appropriate to their context. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is helping to build 2,000 electric minivans for public transport, and setting up solar powered plants in more isolated areas of Bangladesh. A project in South Africa provides both insulation and solar-powered water heaters to homes in a deprived area of Cape Town. In Brazil, it generates biodiesel out of a Rio rubbish dump, and in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, replaces old buses with new ones that run on clean fuel.

The plan is for projects like these all over the South, proving that poorer countries are capable of moving straight into no-regrets development with lasting, non-polluting equipment. Yet the CDM principle is as much a stumbling block as a help for such initiatives, as it favours the countries that pollute more. Since greenhouse gas emissions in Bangladesh are very low - less than one car for every 1,000 inhabitants- there is no pressure to reduce emissions and Bangladesh can't get credits from the reductions it does make.

This shows that the Protocol is a prefabricated idea designed to benefit Northern industrialised countries and gas-guzzling Southern giants. If our biosphere is to survive, it could be up to the smaller Southern countries to find alternative systems for sustainable development.

________________________________________________________ * Agnès Sinai is co-author of 'Sauver la Terre' (Fayard, Paris, 2003)

(1) The Kyoto Protocol, signed at the 1997 international environment conference organised by the UN, commits industrialised countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by an average 5% between 1990 and 2012. Yet even this modest objective may not be achieved, since ratification of the Protocol has stalled.

(2) Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, vol 1, Geneva, 2001.

(3) Changements climatiques et solidarité internationale, Réseau Action Climat et alii, Montreuil, November 2003.

(4) The Group of 77 was established in 1964 as an organisation of developing countries; it now has 133 members but kept its original name.


Translated by Gulliver Cragg

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1997-2004 Le Monde diplomatique

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Commentary by David Shearman

It is a health issue when thousands of islanders who presently have a stable life on lands inhabited by their forbears for thousands of years will see their homes inundated. They will become environmental refugees. As we know from the experience of Aboriginal communities, loss of home and land confers disintegration of community and a range of physical andmental illnesses.

It is a health issue that these displaced persons will need resettlement into countries that presently resist a large intake of refugees, often on ideological grounds. These refugees are likely to confer huge social and health costs upon the country to which they flee.

Health is a human rights issue. In this case, loss of health and wellbeing is caused by wealthy, indifferent countries that refuse to reduce pollution in order to protect the territory of the poor. It is a legal and political issue as described in the second article.

It is a health issue that many small island nation inhabitants rely on local fishing for their protein intake. Around the world fish stocks are diminishing rapidly. Now, those fish stocks that breed in coral reefs around small islands will be reduced by sea level rise which damages the reefs. Therefore those islands not inundated will also suffer. In this regard you will have read that the Great Barrier Reef is threatened for the same reasons.

These are just some of the reasons why the inundation of islands in the Pacific is a health issue. There are many other health implications that you might like to consider now that you have read this article and commentary.