NEW YORK CITY — As carbon emissions climb, global temperatures spike, oceans rise and storms grow more intense, the effects of climate change get closer to a course that scientists say will be irreversible, and small island states like the Virgin Islands are on the front lines.
In the midst of the climate crisis, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called on heads of state to announce concrete solutions at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City this week.
In several speeches, leaders of small island developing states announced plans to slash CO2 emissions and transition to renewable energy, emphasising the existential risk that 1.5 degrees of global warming would mean for their countries, while also highlighting the contrast between their ambitious goals and their relatively miniscule contributions to global carbon emissions.
Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley highlighted the devastating consequences climate change has already brought to countries in the Alliance of Small Island States in the form of increased intensity of storms such as hurricanes Irma, Maria and Dorian.
While 65 countries, including Fiji and Barbados, committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, some of the biggest emitters like China and India made few concrete promises, and United States President Donald Trump did not make an appearance at the climate summit.
“As we seek to save our country and our people from the ravages of devastating hurricanes, droughts and fires, and the insidious slow onset of ocean acidification and sea level rise, the science is clear,” Ms. Mottley said. “And the evidence is even clearer that the lives of our people have been lost and properties abandoned.”
She added that even the one degree Celsius of global warming that scientists say has already occurred since pre-industrial levels has caused an “unacceptable high level of catastrophic damage and loss of life.”
“Even if we limit temperature rise to the 1.5 degree target, without urgent adaptation our suffering will go for generations and claim many more innocent lives,” she said. “Acceptance of this living nightmare is morally unthinkable, and denial is unconscionable.”
The ‘new normal’
Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama pointed out that for SIDS, storms like Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas, have become the “new normal.”
He added that Fiji has enacted an environmental and climate levy, issued a “green bond,” and declared a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining.
“Why is a tiny carbon emitter like ourselves taking such drastic action? The answer is simple. While Fiji did not cause the climate crisis, we are fully awake to its reality,” he said. “Someone must act with clear purpose and resolve. Someone must clear a path for others to follow. If we fail or if we falter, our children and grandchildren will have no path at all.”
Solutions in Singapore
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his country’s proposed solutions include a cleaner fuel mix.
Even though Singapore’s small urbanised setting makes it hard to find alternatives to fossil fuels, he said, the country is installing large-scale solar panels that float in reservoirs and in the ocean.
He added that Singapore has also implemented a carbon tax, with the goal of increasing it in the next 10 years.
The country is also “greening” its physical and transport infrastructure, with the goal of 80 percent green buildings by 2030, and another goal of 90 percent of “peak hour” commuting trips by public transport, shared transport or active mobility by 2040.
Ms. Mottley also spoke of the importance of investing in the construction and protection of infrastructure and coral reefs. Barbados, she said, has committed to the “mammoth task” of planting one million trees within its 166 square miles, and she invited Barbadians across the world to return to the island to assist.
“We refuse to be relegated to the footnotes of history, and to be collateral damage for the greed of others,” she said.
Roadblocks in funding
Ms. Mottley also addressed what she called the “elephant in the room:” the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s official development assistance rules, which she said focus too much on a country’s gross domestic product without taking into account vulnerability to climate change.
Under the existing guidelines, she said, the Bahamas does not qualify for most grants and concessional resources.
“These rules were not developed for such a time as this,” she said to applause, ignoring cues from the moderator that she had exceeded her allotted time. “And we need to change these rules that deny access to successful small countries. And we need to remove the bureaucracy.”
St. Lucia Prime Minister Allen Michael Chastanet echoed her sentiments, and said that the OECD needs to change how it classifies developing countries to take into account a “vulnerability index.”
His second request was a dedicated fund for SIDS.
Green Climate Fund
Mr. Guterres, the UN secretary general, also called on Monday for countries to double their contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which invests in low-emission and climate resilient practices in developing countries.
While his calls led to generous pledges and raised the total funds to more $7.3 billion, Mr. Chastanet lamented that it is still difficult for SIDS to access those funds. He went on to say that the governance procedures that manage the funds need to take into account that many island nations face a yearly hurricane season and cannot wait for a typical five-year project cycle.
He concluded by saying that the debt SIDS must incur to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure should be reclassified so that it does not “go on our books.”
“What we may gain in physical climate change resilience, we’re now going to lose in economic resilience,” he said.
Ms. Mottley also spoke about Barbuda and Dominica, islands which she said had not received sufficient assistance since they were devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria two years ago.
The money pledged to Barbuda, some of which it still hasn’t been able to access, represents less than 10 percent of the money it needs to rebuild, she said.
Dominica, she added, has only been able to access about 10 percent of the funds pledged to it.
“We must ask ourselves if small states continue to remain invisible and dispensable to the global community,” she said.
Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih pointed out in his remarks that developed countries had pledged to contribute $100 billion by 2020 to combat climate change, but they will not meet that goal.
Palau President Tommy Esang Remengesau Jr. said it would cost about $60 billion for all the SIDS to meet their clean energy targets by 2030, and emphasised that collaboration would be necessary to achieve those goals.
Ms. Mottley pointed out that even countries that are not on the front line of the climate crisis will have to deal with the mass migration of climate refugees from countries that are.
Mr. Chastanet agreed, adding that 50,000 Bahamians have to be temporarily relocated for one and a half to two years while their country is rebuilt.
“Who is going to sustain those people? Where are they going to go to school? What job are they going to have?” he asked.“These are the practical realities that we’re dealing with on ground zero of SIDS. We don’t have time or the luxury for all the dialogue that is taking place.”
Several leaders also spoke about the cost of insurance invulnerable countries, which has been rising so high as to be prohibitive.
Ms. Mottley said that the Caribbean Catastrophic Risk Insurance Facility was established more than a decade ago to pool the risk of 16 countries, but that Hurricane Dorian marked a “new chapter” in which CCRIF was no longer an appropriate mechanism to meet the needs of rebuilding.
She added that Barbados and other countries in the region had introduced “natural disaster clauses” into their bonds, and urged countries to host an insurance colloquium to address the issue of affordability.
Mr. Chastanet added to this, saying that many small businesses in St. Lucia now spend 20 percent of their operating costs on insurance.
“We’re now getting to learn it’s economically unsustainable to be able to have insurance,” he said.
Mr. Chastanet also emphasised that while the effects of climate change are already impacting SIDS, the changes they are seeing are a harbinger for what will eventually affect the rest of the world as well.
“Climate change does not discriminate,” he said. “It has started with us because we’re close to the equator. But it’s soon coming to your doorstep. Allow the SIDS to be that lab of figuring out how we’re going to be able to deal with this climate change issue. And through our solutions, you will also be helping yourself in the future.”