Adapting to the crisis

The role of small island states in leading the multilateral agenda for aggressive, proactive United Nations system-wide responses to climate is unique and unparalleled.

A concerted effort by a group of small island states put climate change on the United Nations agenda back in 1988, when Malta persuaded the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the potential 'severe economic and social consequences' of climate change. The Republic of Maldives followed suit by hosting the 1989 Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise, which resulted in the Male Declaration on Global Warming and Sea Level Rise. The conference also saw the creation of an action group on climate change consisting of more than 30 small island countries, later to become the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). This momentum continued through the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where AOSIS, aided by the Foundation for Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), successfully lobbied for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This success story came to a fitting conclusion when the Maldives became the first signatory to the third protocol of the UNFCCC, also known as the Kyoto Protocol.

A very similar kind of prescient acuity to the possibility for real harm from the looming threat of climate catastrophe compelled AOSIS negotiators more than two decades later, in 2009, to make the case that any mechanism for maintaining flexibility in the climate agreement should aim at stabilizing the greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration at 350ppm and global temperature rise at 1.5°C with a commitment period of 2013 to 2017, instead of the proposed 2012 to 2020 window argued by the wealthier developed countries.

AOSIS members maintained the position that concluding the next commitment period by 2017 could enable a 'post-2017' agreement to respond directly to the next full report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is due in early 2014.

AOSIS representatives also made the case that the commitment of the so-called Annex I, or industrialized countries, in the Kyoto Protocol should be considered as aggregate and must be in excess of 40 per cent below their 1990 level emissions by 2020 to avoid possible irrevocable anthropogenic interference with the climate system. AOSIS members also argued that the longer-term target for Annex I countries should achieve a cut of over 95 per cent below the 1990 levels by 2050.

AOSIS called for efforts to limit temperature increase to below 1.5°C, and atmospheric concentrations to below 350ppm CO2 equivalent (AOSIS, 2008). According to AOSIS, this will require global emissions to reduce by more than 85 per cent by 2050 (Chinese Government, 2008).

At the 2009 climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany, a leading delegate from Micronesia offered the following:

It is clear that 2°C is too high for small island developing states. I don't need to repeat the list of effects of 2°C ... there are some issues that no amount of adaptation funding can deal with. When a hurricane wipes out your whole country, adequate adaptation funding is very hard to come by.

And it is clear that the latest science shows that 450ppm carries a 50 per cent risk of exceeding 2°C of global warming. It is also clear that sea-level rise will be higher than the AR4 [IPCC Fourth Assessment Report] scenario of 18cm-58cm. It is more like 50cm-140cm by 2100 [in a business-as-usual scenario]. We would see the disappearance of whole countries ... the Maldives, the Bahamas ... and if not total disappearance, what would be left will not be viable.

We do not want to be looking at options to relocate our populations. We want to take strong mitigation action so that such a scenario is not necessary. That decision rests with the AWG-KP [Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol]. Either we accept a higher stabilization level and high impacts, or Annex 1 has to do more. (Keenan, 2009)

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