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Tackling climate change

Brad Plumer and Lisa Friedman, Nov 27 2017, 21:47 IST
From rising seas to the loss of fresh water, islands are among the most vulnerable nations to global warming.

From rising seas to the loss of fresh water, islands are among the most vulnerable nations to global warming.

Fijian singers, strumming ukuleles, serenaded the delegates to the United Nations climate talks as they entered the conference hall. A traditional two-hulled sailing craft, or drua, is on display by the entrance to signify that when it comes to rising seas, all nations are in the same boat. But as two weeks of negotiations on bolstering the Paris agreement draw to a close, island leaders say the decor seems a cruel taunt.

Fiji, a sunny island nation in the South Pacific, is the official host of the climate discussions here in chilly Bonn, Germany. But leaders say their hopes that island issues would take centre stage have mostly been dashed. Almost none of the measures to help their countries adapt to the impacts of global warming have been resolved. "I'm anxious and I'm fearful," said Allen Michael Chastanet, prime minister of St Lucia. "It can't be that a prime minister's only resource is to get down on his knees on the side of a bed and pray."

From rising seas to the loss of fresh water, islands are among the most vulnerable nations to global warming. Hurricanes, expected to become more ferocious with climate change, having pummelled the Caribbean island nations into crisis this summer. Hurricane Irma destroyed nearly every car and building on the island of Barbuda and swelled the population of Antigua overnight.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Small islands also are among the smallest contributors to climate change, producing less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industrialised world, their leaders say, owes some recompense for the disasters these vulnerable nations will suffer in the years ahead. "The very thing that makes them wealthy is contributing to our vulnerability," said Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda. "It's only fair that they provide some level of compensation." But hopes are waning that island nations will see a major increase in financial support to help address the consequences of climate change. So, there is an effort here at COP23 to expand ways for nations to adapt to future disasters.

In the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, rising sea levels are causing salt water to intrude into underground fresh water supplies. In order to adapt, the country is trying to build rainwater cisterns and new pipe systems to ensure that its people have safe drinking water supplies.

It's a costly task, and the Maldives was one of the first countries to apply for aid from the Green Climate Fund, which was set up in 2010 by wealthy countries to help poorer nations adapt to climate change. Yet the fund has been slow to start and the country waited two years before seeing any of the promised funding. "That's too long to wait," said Thoriq Ibrahim, minister of energy and environment in the Maldives. "There's no use having a fund somewhere if you can't access it quickly."

While most wealthy countries agree in principle that they should deliver more aid, the details of how to do it have been bogged down in the slow bureaucratic processes of UN talks. On November 17, delegates here did create an expert group to formally include the issue of helping vulnerable countries with immediate needs. There is no money attached to it, though, nor means to raise any. So far, the biggest news came midweek, when Germany and Britain announced funding for a long-discussed partnership to promote insurance coverage in island nations vulnerable to disasters.

Some island officials, frustrated by the slowness of the UN process, have decided to take matters into their own hands. The Seychelles, for instance, has been promoting its debt swap program, started in 2015 with the help of The Nature Conservancy, in which a group of investors agreed to restructure $30 million of the country's debt if the island agreed to protect 30% of its ocean habitat.

Ronald Jumeau, the ambassador from the Seychelles to the UN, argued that island nations may have to look outside the UN process for help. "We all know what the problem is. Why depress ourselves by sitting around the table and moaning about it?" said Ronald. "Too many people are fixated on this government process. I'm going to where the money is."

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