Fighting to Stay Above the Sea

by Jesse Marks:

Ahmed Khaleel, the Maldives ambassador to the United Nations in New York, has spent a long time away from home. Since arriving at the New York mission in 1984 as the third secretary, he has watched from afar as his country’s population more than doubled to 375,000, as his once-dictatorial government fought off two coup attempts, and as his people finally enjoyed their first free and open democratic election in 2008.

Khaleel has remained at his post in New York, providing the Maldivian people with a dependable international voice even as the country’s domestic politics descended into chaos. He has accomplished a lot, but this career diplomat knows he has yet to solve the most important challenge of his career, an issue that threatens the very existence of the nation he has worked tirelessly to represent.

Seychelles Ambassador Ronny Jumeau speaks at a UN conference. A former minister of the environment, Jumeau sees climate change as an existential threat to his country (Courtesy United Nations).

“The Maldives,” he said from his office near the U.N. building in New York, “are on the frontline of climate change.” As he explained, the highest point in any of the country’s 1190 small coral islands is 2.4 meters above sea level, and most of the land is more than a meter below that. This is a frightening statistic given that the ocean has been rising between four to eight millimeters each year, according to the Australian government’s respected Seaframe  monitoring project. “If things keep moving at the same rate, 30 years down the line there may not be any more Maldives,” Khaleel said defeatedly.

Following the debate

According to the scientific community, there is little doubt that carbon emissions are responsible for the Maldives’ problems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N.-mandated coalition of more than 2,500 scientific experts from 130 countries, has reported that human emissions of carbon are causing the earth to warm an unprecedented .2 degrees Celsius per decade. Though skeptics argue that carbon emissions have nothing to do with this phenomenon, Barry Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Stability at the University of Adelaide, calls that position “illegitimate” and says “it would be very difficult to find an alternative explanation for this type of warming.”

Human-induced warming causes a host of other problems. Most worrisome is that rising temperatures are melting the polar ice caps, which hold more than 80 percent of the world’s fresh water. Already, the sheer volume of this new water has raised the sea level by several centimeters. If current trends continue, the ocean will rise by well over a meter before the end of this century.

This is a problem that small island states like Khaleel’s have done little to cause. Combined, the world’s small island developing states account for less than one percent of global carbon emissions. But failure to control global warming will literally cause their destruction. To Khaleel and his counterparts, therefore, the battle against climate change is a fight for survival.

Ronny Jumeau, ambassador of Seychelles, was appointed to the U.N. in 2007 with the sole mandate of joining that fight. Jumeau had been the Seychelles’ Minister of the Environment since 2000 and was leading his government’s efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and to represent his country at a conferences at the U.N. Environment Programme’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2006, however, debate began to heat up at the U.N., and Jumeau’s president, James Michell, wanted him to take the lead. The ambassador recalled his president’s advice after he received his appointment: “Look, Ronny, the debate on climate change and environment has shifted from Nairobi to New York. It’s in the U.N. Follow the debate.”

And so he did.

“When I presented my credentials to both President Bush and Kofi Annan, they asked what my priorities are. My response: climate change, climate change, climate change.” Jumeau’s voice dropped to a whisper as he continued, “Climate change is not just another problem for us. We’re talking in many cases about countries being wiped off the face of the earth, literally disappearing beneath the oceans. So for us, the debate is emotional.”

More than just the oceans

Though the oceans are rising at an alarming rate, this may not be the most immediate problem for many small island states. Between drought, erosion, crop failure, “king tides,” unprecedented storms, and the destruction of coral reefs essential to vital tourism and fishing industries, these tiny states face a host of climate-change related crises.

On September 7, 2004, for instance, climate change hit the Caribbean paradise of Grenada in full force. The island, which is not part of the hurricane belt, was in the midst of a 41-year hurricane-free spell. Hermoine St. Bernard, administrative assistant of a church in the capital city, was in Grenada on the day Hurricane Ivan put an end to that era of serenity. “It happened during the day, and I remember we could hear it coming for hours. It was like a big freight train. People say you can’t see the wind, but it was so strong, I swear you could see it, destroying homes, schools, churches, everything.” The hurricane damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the country’s houses, leaving 60,000 homeless and putting the nation into debt that neared 125 percent of GDP. But the devastation was not over when the winds abated. The next year, the island was rocked by Hurricane Emily, which ripped roofs off of newly repaired houses and caused millions more in damages.

Two hurricanes in two years? Many in Grenada believe something is not right.

From a gravedigger to a president

With climate change destroying their countries, diplomats from small island states have their hands full at the U.N. Convincing the world’s powers to simultaneously cut emissions and provide assistance for the crisis’ most immediate victims is, by all accounts, a gargantuan task. Add the fact that many small island nations maintain U.N. missions of no more than one diplomat and one or two secretaries, and the task seems impossible.

But, as Jumeau pointed out, he can do nothing but work with what little help he has since his country simply cannot spare anyone else to assist him. “In a country of 80,000 people, you have to find everybody from a gravedigger to a president. So every scientist of your own nationality that you use to project the effects of climate change over the next century is one guy less that is working on disease, education, or any of the other problems we have to deal with.”

Sitting across the negotiation table from the larger delegations of industrialized countries, Jumeau is at an obvious disadvantage: “All these big countries have experts on every issue you can think of. How much gas is coming out of the back side of a cow, they’ll have a scientist look just at that.” Jumeau, for his part, doesn’t even have a second diplomat.

During a three-hour interview one Friday afternoon, Jumeau excused himself several times to answer calls from his president and foreign minister. Each time, his voice was urgent. After the third conversation, he excused himself and moved to his computer. Clearly upset, he explained that a pirate attack had occurred in the country’s waters, and, as Seychelles’s only New York diplomat, it was his job to send a formal complaint to the U.N. Security Council. As he typed, he remarked bitterly, “We are a country of 80,000 people with national waters the size of Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium combined. What the hell do you think our navy is? Climate change is an infinitely bigger problem, but we can’t even defend ourselves against a boatload of pirates.”

An alliance is formed

Climate change is not a new focus for small island states. In fact, it was the Maldives who first brought international attention to the issue on October 19, 1987. On that day, the country’s then-dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom gave a dramatic speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Now known as the “Death of a Nation” speech, it was the first time a head of state had publicly recognized the issue’s urgency. Three years later, the IPCC published its first assessment on climate change, which got a great deal of attention in the scientific community, but far less from the world’s leaders. The developed world was not interested in paying real attention to an issue that seemed so amorphous, even though small island states and scientists alike emphasized its urgency.

It was within this context that, during the 1990 Second World Climate Conference in Geneva, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was officially formed. The hope was that, by speaking with a unified voice on common issues like climate change and by pooling diplomatic and scientific resources, the Alliance could finally make the concerns of small island states heard in the international community.

AOSIS is, by all accounts, an unconventional organization. More an ad-hoc grouping than a formal body, it has no charter, no formal budget, and no secretariat. According to Dr. Dessima Williams, Grenada’s U.N. ambassador and the current chair of the Alliance, the group’s heads of state generally meet by “piggybacking on other conferences,” while scientists coordinate primarily by way of an “internet operation,” sharing facts and data remotely, meeting in person only at global conferences. This leaves it up to the U.N. ambassadors in New York to take advantage of their close proximity to do most of the work, passing along any news to their heads of state and scientific experts.

The ambassadors meet formally about once every two months, updating each other on the status of different environmental adaptation projects and sharing strategies to navigate upcoming conferences. The leadership “bureau,” a three-member committee of representatives elected from each of AOSIS’s regional subgroups meets weekly. Of that bureau, two are vice-chairs, while one is elected to serve as council chairperson. Chairmanship is more than just an honorary title — because AOSIS lacks a formal structure, the entire alliance must be managed through that country’s U.N. mission.

Loyalty and commitment

The key to the Alliance is that its 43-nation membership brings 43 different skill sets to the table. For example, Williams hands off most speechwriting work to different colleagues, depending on their expertise. For sustainable agriculture issues, she turns to the Jamaican diplomat. Williams also lists Barbados, Marshall Islands, and Seychelles as key members.

Williams especially appreciates the advice of the Alliance’s vice-chairs and finds it convenient that the Solomon Islands Mission, which serves as the vice-chair from the Pacific, is only 20 feet from her own office. Since becoming Grenada’s ambassador in January, Williams has been meeting with Colin Beck of the Solomon Islands and Alírio Vicente Silva of Cape Verde on a weekly basis: “We meet around breakfast, I provide food. We get to eat, strategize and plan, all before ten o’clock.”

Khaleel also appreciates his close proximity to the other ambassadors. Pointing out that eight of the nine countries which share his suite are members of AOSIS, Khaleel remarked, “I can walk into any of these missions. We don’t have to make appointments with them because we are right next door and we have such small missions. So you meet every day, and you get to understand each other. We coordinate a lot, and that is our success.” According to Khaleel, this close coordination translates into strong diplomacy at the U.N. “Sticking together and speaking in one voice. It has been working well, and we’ll make sure it continues that way.”

This close relationship seems to extend outside the realm of diplomacy. When asked if AOSIS ambassadors ever met in their free time, Khaleel broke into a wide smile, “Yeah! We have so many receptions and social functions. And we all have something in common because we’re islanders and the island lifestyle is there in all of us. The bond that you create, the friendships that you forge are all very important to us.”

Beck echoed Khaleel’s enthusiasm, adding, “When a new ambassador arrives, he introduces himself to his fellow islanders, and if there is someone who can guide him through the forests of the U.N. system, he’ll find him in AOSIS.” The Alliance, says Beck, is like a family. “You say goodbye to one member and welcome another.”

Williams, who is one of the most junior ambassadors in the Alliance and who relied heavily on her fellow diplomats while getting acclimated to her new position, smiled as she said, “The U.N. is big. There are many groupings, but this one is special.”

Taking the lead

For the small island states to survive, AOSIS must get the international community to cut carbon emissions. To combat the short-term effects of climate change, meanwhile, AOSIS needs several billion dollars of aid to avoid crippling debt.

The developed world has never been enthusiastic about handing out vast sums of money to countries with marginal political significance, something AOSIS has no illusions about. If they are to expect any help from the West, island nations know they must lead by example.

This leadership was evident at the First Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island States in Barbados in 1994, where AOSIS and the developed world agreed to a detailed plan known as the Barbados Programme of Action, outlining a variety of national, regional, and international measures for proper environmental management and climate change adaptation. Most AOSIS states have done their best to follow the Barbados Programme, designing national plans for climate change mitigation, setting up environmental monitoring mechanisms, and promoting more sustainable resource management. The international community, for its part, has provided limited financial and technical resources to these countries.

Even outside the Barbados Programme framework, AOSIS states have been fast to take initiative. Grenada, for instance, now powers several of its resorts by wind power, and solar energy use has also grown dramatically. Jamaica also has invested heavily in solar energy over the past decade, and, according to Patrick Yvon, journalist for the Le Mauricien newspaper, Mauritius is taking a creative approach to emissions reductions by distributing free LED light bulbs, moving to daylight savings time, and subsidizing the purchase of solar water heaters.

The Maldives, meanwhile, has trumped all by announcing plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2010.

Adaptation and mitigation

Small island states are taking the initiative in environmental sustainability, but they are ill equipped to deal with climate change itself. In many cases they aren’t even able to understand the full extent of the problem. Harking back to his country’s lack of scientific resources, Jumeau pointed out the futility in designing evacuation and adaptation plans for his more vulnerable islands. “We need studies to tell us exactly how many inches the ocean will rise each year. We need to know when these islands will disappear. We know it’s going to happen, but not when, and only with that information can you effectively plan,” he said.

Regardless, his government has no choice but to press forward. According to Veronique Carola, project officer of the Sea Level Rise Foundation, which works closely with the Seychelles Government on climate change adaptation, the country is in the process of drafting an environment management plan that covers 10 thematic areas, all of which are cross-related with climate change. But implementing this plan without international support is impossible. “If you look at our islands, all 115 of them are relatively small, with the biggest stretching over a few hundred kilometers which makes the implications of managing all this coastal area huge! No way can we fully support ourselves without cracking down and requesting international aid. Climate change will cripple us for sure,” she said in an email message. She pointed out that the country does have several reliable partners, primarily the United Nations Development Programme. But Seychelles needs more help, and fast.

One of the biggest adaptation problems facing small island states has been dealing with contaminated water supplies. As the ocean rises, it seeps up through the islands’ coral structure, rendering underground aquifers useless. Rainwater collection is one option, but it rarely provides sufficient water to satisfy the population. In many places, desalination is the only way to guarantee a reliable source of drinking water, but it requires costly Western technologies that few member countries can afford without financial assistance.

As for flooding, sea walls are one temporary, but effective solution. In the 1980s, the Maldives received funding from Japan to build a sea wall around the capital island. The investment paid off when the tsunami hit in 2004, saving the island’s 100,000 residents from its full impact, in marked contrast to the country’s other islands, which were all but wiped out. One of Khaleel’s main priorities is to secure funding to protect the other islands as well.

In addition to these projects, small island states need help with a broad spectrum of programs ranging from finding ways to stabilize agricultural supplies to protecting coral reefs.

For all of these projects, AOSIS has taken the lead in pursuing financial assistance. Williams works closely with AOSIS’s best experts and negotiators and meets often with donor countries. In recent months, AOSIS has taken part in a “huge” initiative with Australia and has received 100 million dollars  from the Canadian government. For her part, Williams has proven adept at managing global politics and rivalries. After explaining that the Greeks had just given $3 million to an adaptation fund, Williams outlined her next move with a sly smile. “My next step is to call the Turks and see what they want to do.”

Carbon over all

While assistance in dealing with the current effects of climate change is the first step for the survival of small island states, there must also be a concurrent and dramatic reduction in global carbon emissions because no island can adapt forever.

“Sure, people can rebuild after the king tide,” said Beck. “But the next one will just come and destroy the island again. There are ways to build sea walls, but the same problem persists. At the end of the day, it is about reducing emissions.”

In many cases, this has been a hard point to get across to the developed world. Jumeau recalled a recent conversation with a Dutch expert while they walked along a beach in Seychelles. The Dutchman suggested what he thought was a simple solution to the island’s problems: Build a dike.

Jumeau clearly did not buy into this idea. “I said where do you want to build a dike? If you build it before the beach, you are now sitting on the sand looking at a big wall. If you build it after the beach, the beach will be gone anyways. So the dike will save the island but destroy the tourism economy that it depends on,” he said.

Jumeau also pointed out that the cost of building dikes to protect a country like his, which has some 115 islands, is unfathomable. Better, at that point, to just relocate the entire population, argued Jumeau.

In the end, the AOSIS sees just one way to secure the future of small island states: The developed world must cut emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2020 and 95 percent by 2050.

The conscience of the world

Nobody in AOSIS thinks it likely that they will be able to convince the developed world to make such sacrifices, and AOSIS’s leaders acknowledge that they have little geopolitical leverage. What they do have, however, is the moral high ground, something they hope is just as powerful.

“We did very little to create this problem. Manhattan’s traffic probably produces as much carbon emission in one day as our country does in a year,” Jumeau pointed out. Thus, argues AOSIS, small island states are suffering from a tragedy whose blame falls squarely on the developed world. AOSIS’s  strategy is to convey this message to the international community and hit right at their consciences. “We call ourselves the conscience of the world,” said Jumeau. “We islanders, we tend to smile a lot, we just smile and laugh in the face of adversity — tsunamis, hurricanes, whatever. If you can turn your back on the nicest people on earth and such beautiful countries, how can you ever wipe your hands of it?”

One of the biggest accomplishments of this “conscience of the world” came last year when the Maldives successfully lobbied for the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution calling climate change an issue of human rights. The point, according to Khaleel, was to bring the debate beyond mere numbers and to shed light on the tremendous suffering which climate change is inflicting on people throughout the world.

To Beck, this kind of diplomacy is AOSIS’s main strategy. “I think the real purpose of AOSIS is to remind the international community that we are talking about people. We are not talking about finance for the sake of finance, technology for the sake of technology. We are trying to mitigate human issues.”

Adam Luedtke, professor of political science at the University of Utah and expert on the United Nations, thinks that this is a smart — and pragmatic — approach. “The way you frame the issue and how it registers with the U.N. Charter can lend it a lot of legitimacy. This framing allows the U.N., a powerful human rights machine, to focus on the issue.”

Waking up beneath the sea

But as powerful as AOSIS’s argument may be, the harsh reality is that, 22 years after Gayoom’s “Death of a Nation” speech, the developed world has still not cut emissions. As Beck complained, “There is so much sympathy, but we don’t need that. We need real, hard commitments to take back to our people.” So far, those commitments have been few and far between.

Explained Brooks when asked about the effectiveness of AOSIS’s diplomacy: “It is more convenient for other nations to just throw out a few platitudes, motherhood statements, and not do much about it. Ultimately, there is only one way to save these island states, and that is to get a global reduction in carbon emissions.”

And the world has not just failed to help on emissions reductions. More immediate humanitarian issues, like the need for agreements on the eventual accommodation of climate refugees, have also been left unresolved.

The tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu, which has been battered in recent years by flooding and crop failure, has approached the Australian government twice since 2001, seeking asylum for its 10,000 citizens and has twice been turned down (To be fair, New Zealand has offered to take in up to 75 refugees per year, but that number is insufficient to deal with the impending crisis).

In the Maldives, things had gotten so bad by November of 2008 that the president announced that his government was starting a trust fund that could be used to purchase a new homeland in case he needed to evacuate his people and the rest of the world was unwilling to help. Small island states, it seems, are being left to drown, and many worry that the international community won’t get serious about the problem until it is too late. Said Luedtke: “Sometimes it takes a disaster of that scale to wake people up.”

The confrontation

Not all news is bad for AOSIS, though. Those following the debate suggest that, over the last few years, there have been signs that the world is starting to approach the problem with greater urgency.

Jean Krasno, a professor of political science at Yale University, pinpointed one possible epiphany. “It really wasn’t until, I’m sorry to say, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth that the American public changed its point of view,” she said. “Until that point, small island states were talking, but their voices couldn’t really be heard against the larger countries that didn’t want to pay attention to these problems.”

In 2007, Al Gore and the IPCC were famously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, solidifying climate change as an issue at the top of the global agenda. This set the stage for AOSIS member Papua New Guinea to shine at the December 2007 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia. As the 15-day conference came to a close, the committee came to a standstill. When Paula Dobriansky, selected by the Bush Administration to take part in the American delegation, announced that the United States did not support the roadmap, she was met by boos and hisses from much of the audience.

Several speakers later, Kevin Conrad, a member of the Papua New Guinea delegation, laced into the Americans. “There is an old saying: If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way. [America], we ask for your leadership… but if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.” As Conrad finished his last sentence, the room burst into loud applause. A few minutes later, Dobriansky completely reversed her position and supported the plan.

The agreement itself was meaningless. Literally a plan to make a plan, it set no real requirements for emissions reductions. The symbolism, however, was tremendous: an island country single-handedly saving a global climate change conference and forcing the United States to change its position on a major issue. AOSIS, it appeared, was starting to see results.

The recent change of power in the United States also appears favorable for AOSIS, as the Obama administration has made environmental responsibility a stated priority. There is a long way to go, but at least there is hope that things are moving in the right direction. Said Luedtke, “I think it is really coming down to what the Obama administration sees as the political capital that can be spent. If he can come out of 2009 with a fairly high level of popularity, I think the U.S. can really make some concerted action.”

Sticking together

Unfortunately for countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives, just as the news from the international community has begun to brighten, updates from the scientific community have taken a turn for the worse.

“The science is not encouraging,” said Richard Somerville, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, and a lead author of the IPCC’s 2007 Assessment. “The prospects for sea level rise are graver than have been reported in the 2007 IPCC report. If you could magically stop emissions today, you are still going to see sea level rise for a very long time.”

Brook put it more bluntly. “You can count at least a dozen small island states which are basically stuffed,” he said in his heavy Australian accent. “The honest scientific opinion is that there is so much warming in the pipeline that even if we can cut out emissions directly, we are going to have so much heat going into melting the ice and expanding the oceans that there is no way we are going to avoid less than a meter sea level rise.”

The Maldives are one of those countries which Brooks believes will be under the ocean by the end of the century, regardless of what happens with future emissions. Khaleel has heard this prediction but simply cannot bring himself to give up on his country. So he fights on, persevering in the slightest hope that the science is wrong and his country can still be saved. “I just visited the country last week. I can see the changes. People are happy. There is so much freedom in our country, people can speak now, they can say whatever they want, and the people are benefiting. But this is just the start of a whole process.” Khaleel will do everything he can, he said, to let his country finish that process. “We have developed politically, and we have done the right things, the things everybody wants small countries to do. Now it’s up to the developed world to sustain the momentum that we have generated here. Without them, it will be very difficult,” he said in bitter understatement.

Jumeau hasn’t given up either. He remains on the diplomatic offensive, knowing full well that even if he succeeds, his country’s chances are slim. “At least when we hear on the news that the U.S. Navy has come to rescue the last people from my country, I want the world to be able to say that at least we have tried our best. We aren’t even close to that point yet, and I’m not going to let anyone off the hook until we are.”

And neither is the rest of AOSIS. After 19 years of fighting side-by-side on climate change, they see no reason to stop now. Said Khaleel, “We are all small island countries, and we are in it together. We speak in one voice, and we stick together.”

Show comments

Read the discussion

One reply to “Fighting to Stay Above the Sea”

  1. Jennifer says:

    Excellent article, let me write a couple of words on social & legal context

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.

Comments are closed.