BY SIR RONALD SANDERS – Imagine if on the anniversary of its independence the friendliest message your nation gets is that a nearby island is willing to give your people refuge if your country sinks underwater.   That means picking up whatever you might salvage and leaving behind your homeland, your possessions and your entire heritage. It also entails the suffering and deprivation of starting over in a foreign country with very little if anything.

This is not a nightmare for the people of Kiribati or Tuvalu in the Pacific. It is a real and frightening prospect.

On the 36th anniversary of Kiribati’s independence from Britain last week – July 12 – the Prime Minister of Fiji, Voreqe Bainimarama, recognising the plight of the small island state of Kiribati faces from climate change and sea-level rise, offered to provide the Kiribatis with “a permanent home” if their island became uninhabitable.

This is a fine gesture by the Fijian Prime Minister, particularly as he pointed out in an address to the UN General Assembly last year, the rising sea level caused by climate change is already forcing the evacuation of coastal villages in his own country.

Prime Minister Bainimarama’s offer may also have to be extended to the people of Tuvalu.  In March this year, as Cylcone Pam ripped through the neighbouring island of Vanuatu, the resulting sea surges inundated the Tuvalu islands causing residents to be evacuated from some, while others had no alternative but to drink salt water.

No wonder representatives of several Pacific island nations gathered in June in Vanuatu to sign a declaration seeking “climate justice”.   In the declaration, the Pacific Islands committed to legal action “that would investigate the human rights implications of climate change and hold the big carbon polluters accountable to appropriate international bodies or processes”.

Litigation could be brought against major corporate entities responsible for the majority of global industrial emissions. A study published in Climate Change in 2014 suggests that 90 entities are responsible for an estimated 914 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) of cumulative world emissions of industrial CO2 and methane between 1854 and 2010, or about 63 percent of estimated global industrial emissions of these greenhouse gases.

Whether such legal action is possible or not, human suffering is certainly a reality.  A new study by scientists at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and published in the International Journal of Climatology found that temperatures in the west Pacific have been rising by about 0.15C per decade.   The area under study included the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. “It is clear as day” the study concluded “that that part of the world has warmed up”.

If the polluting nations continue harmful emissions at rates similar to the present level, the region would be between 2C and 4.5C warmer by the end of this century. According to the study, this would mean “a greater incidence of heat stress issues among humans, especially the young, the elderly and the sick, and during heat waves a likely increased pressure on hospitals and potentially increasing death tolls”.

Yet, these countries, like those in the Caribbean, contribute little or nothing to the problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

Leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) at their Summit meeting in Barbados in early July made it clear that “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies”.  In a detailed statement, rich in research and pugnacious in argument, the Caribbean leaders, among other pertinent matters, proposed “the establishment of a process to develop appropriate international rules and procedures that provide redress for economic and non-economic losses emanating from irreversible and permanent damage resulting from human-induced climate change on land and sea resources and assets, and losses directly and indirectly associated with adverse impacts of human-induced climate change, including extreme events and slow onset events”.

Both the Pacific and the Caribbean now look to Paris in November for concrete and meaningful action from the world’s polluting countries at a UN Summit on Climate Change.  There are some hopeful signs that there may be an agreement not only to dramatic cuts in carbon emissions, but also to machinery to finance the adaptation to the impact of climate change on small island states in particular.   Many of the European Union countries are on board, particularly Sweden and Britain; China and the US – among the world’s worst emitters – are talking about an accord; and evidence of the increasing damage to small island states is now irrefutable.

At the end of June, Fiji’s Prime Minister, speaking in the Solomon Islands at a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, declared: “The time for talking on climate change is over. The time for radical action is now. And we must all make sure that the entire world recognises this seminal issue for our well-being and survival in the Pacific and finally take the necessary action”.

Bainimarama urged his fellow Melanesian leaders to join him in a concerted effort to make the world finally sit up and take notice.

Caribbean leaders have already expressed the importance of urgent action.  The leaders of the two regions are now well prepared to unite their efforts to achieve real momentum.  The fate of the people of Kiribati and Tuvalu should not be that of refugees in a foreign land, however friendly; it should not be the fate of any Caribbean island either.

In Paris this November, the two regions should be expected to unite their efforts in their collective interest.

Time for Pacific and Caribbean countries to unite on Climate Change

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Sudies at London University and Massey College, University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own.

Category: Argument & InsightSustainability