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After COP23, Small Island Nations Face an Uncertain Future

Countries met at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn this month to discuss implementing the Paris climate accord to limit global temperature rise. Negotiator Hugh J. Sealy says only minimal progress has been made to help vulnerable small island nations adapt to global warming.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The fate of the planet was on display during the United Nations climate conference in Bonn, Germany. PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Small island nations fought for their future in Bonn, Germany, last week as the United Nations climate negotiations concluded with only limited progress toward the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed upon at the landmark 2015 Paris talks.

Island nations, such as Grenada and Kiribati, contribute minimally to global greenhouse gas emissions. But those countries are expected to be among the worst affected as sea levels continue to rise and warming ocean temperatures and acidification decimate the coral reefs that communities depend on for their food and livelihoods.

With the Pacific island nation of Fiji hosting the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn, delegates emphasized the integral role of marine conservation and science in reducing emissions and adapting to climate change.

Hugh J. Sealy, a public health professor at St. George’s University in Grenada, is a long-time negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States at past COP meetings. This year he was in Bonn to represent the Maldives and the interests of other small island nations generally. Oceans Deeply spoke with Sealy about the progress made at COP23 and the continuing impact of climate change on island nations.

Oceans Deeply: In an op-ed last year, you wrote that ‘the very survival of small island states depends on rapid, multinational action.’ Do you feel like that is happening?

Hugh J. Sealy: In a sense, yes, we are progressing since Paris. I would argue, though, that the momentum that we gained in Paris has been lost. We no longer have that sense of urgency that propelled us toward the Paris agreement, and that’s unfortunate because the science says that we have to peak [in carbon emissions] by 2020 and then go on a downward trajectory. I think that what’s holding the whole thing back is, quite frankly, finance. I know that I’m biased because I’m a negotiator for a developing country, but the developed countries have not stepped up to the plate.

The developed countries have to provide a clear road map as to how we’re going to start getting substantial flows from developed to developing [countries], including small island developing states. As far as small islands are concerned, our priority is adaptation, because we’re already being hit by the impacts of climate change. This season alone we had two Category 5 hurricanes in the space of a couple of weeks in September. That hit 21 islands, caused over $40 billion worth of damage. Our priorities are adaptation when it comes to the Caribbean.

One of the most important things that came out of this COP is, to us, the terms of reference for what is going to be called the Talanoa Dialogue. That is going to be, basically, a snapshot of where we are, in particular on mitigation, and the world needs to recognize that it still needs to be a lot more aggressive. What’s important is that the IPCC 1.5 Special Report is going to come out in October of next year. It’s very important that this report feeds into the Talanoa Dialogue at the next COP, which is going to be in Poland. This year was a stepping stone to what we think is going to be an extremely important event in Poland next year, and that is when countries have to take stock of where we are, take stock of that 1.5 report, and recognize that we drastically have to start reducing our emissions to have any chance of staying below 1.5 degrees.

Oceans Deeply: What climate change impacts have you personally experienced in the Caribbean?

Sealy: Well, it’s getting hotter. Our summer was one of the hottest on record. I am in the south of the Caribbean, and we’re experiencing longer dry seasons. The rainfall patterns appear to be changing to where we’re getting more intense rainfall events. So, there is a general drying going on, but when the rain does fall, it falls rather intensely. That causes a problem for countries that don’t have a lot of storage capacity. So, we’re seeing our hydrological cycle impacted, and that is soon going to impact agriculture. Of course, the sea level rise – this 3–4mm [around 0.1in] per year that is the global average, and in the Caribbean sometimes 5–6mm [around 0.2in] per year – that’s almost imperceptible. We also recognize the oceans are getting more acidic, so that we’re going to start to lose our coral reefs as well. Then, I could see what I call a triple-whammy: You’re going to have a storm surge on top of sea level rise and then we’ll lose the barrier that the coral reefs provide. So, we’re facing a catastrophe, basically, as small islands. I know that Grenada will lose its airport and its seaport before 2050.

Oceans Deeply: How are small island nations dealing with the financing issues?

Sealy: On the community level, if you’ve been impacted by the loss of your home, the loss of your roof, you are going to be as innovative as possible to try and recover. Caribbean people, island people, are as resilient as anyone else at the community level. At the national level, a lot of islands, at least in the Caribbean region, are, quite frankly, still recovering from the 2008 Great Recession, and have not economically recovered since then. So, when you add two Category 5 hurricanes on top of anemic economic growth, then … I think the islands are struggling.

Oceans Deeply: Did it help to have Fiji as the meeting’s leader to bring attention to ocean issues and small island nations?

Sealy: I think so. I am disappointed that it did not turn out to be a small island-centered COP. I don’t suppose I could have expected that – it wasn’t even in Fiji.

I think that the Fijians tried the best that they could to be a president for all countries, and therefore I would say that there was nothing specific that came out of the COP that small islands can say was specifically theirs. They did launch an Oceans Pathway, and they do have the Talanoa Dialogue, which I hope will be their legacy next year.

Oceans Deeply: How optimistic are you that 2018 goals, including financing from developed countries, will be met, and what are your expectations for 2018?

Sealy: I’m worried. First of all – and I speak personally and not on behalf of the Alliance – we know that in the past, Poland, because of its coal industry, has tried to dilute, in some cases, the European Union’s position when it comes to their collective effort to de-carbonize. I hope that the Polish presidency will be like the Fijian presidency and be president for all countries and avoid a short-term national interest. But, the presidency does have an impact on the negotiations.

Putting that aside, I think that we have made sufficient progress at this COP to ensure that we can complete the work program in 2018. But it will require some intense negotiations, both in June and in intersession events, and then in November, December in Poland.

Am I optimistic? I’m always optimistic. I have to be. So I would say that yes, I am optimistic that we will complete what we were supposed to do by next year and that 2018 will be a pivotal year so that when the next round of nationally determined contributions come out by 2020, they are putting us on a path to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming.

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