Updated: May 8
Tick-tock, tick-tock. The clock is ticking. The temperature is rising and the Pacific Islands are on the verge of sinking. Yet, the world is a distance away from the track toward the goal of 1.5 degrees limit of global warming by the end of the century.
“We are low-lying atoll nations, barely a meter above sea level,” Marshall Islands President David Kabua said, addressing the U.S.-hosted virtual Leaders’ Summit on Climate Change, speaking on behalf of all the Pacific Island nations that have been repeatedly identified as most vulnerable to the existential threats of the anomalous climate events.
“For millennia, our people have navigated between our islands to build thriving communities and cultures,” Kabua said. “Today, we are navigating through the storm of climate change, determined to do our part to steer the world to safety.”
But the voices of tiny island nations are drowning in the rising tide of climate change, grasping for survival— aiming at “1.5 to stay alive.”
“We have less than 10 years to outpace the rapid advance of global warming with effective solutions,” said Andrew Yatilman, secretary of FSM Department of Environment, Climate Change & Emergency Management.
U.S. President Joe Biden convened the summit on April 22-23 to urge global cooperation on climate change. “It’s an encouraging start,” Biden told world leaders during the summit. “We’re really beginning to make some real progress.”
The most welcome development so far was Biden’s move to bring the United States back go the Paris Agreement that seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, which was denounced by Donald Trump in 2017.
Biden vowed to reduce U.S. emissions by at least 50 permission by 2030, more than doubling the country’s prior commitment under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
At the April summit, Brazil, Canada, Japan and South Korea made commitments to curb domestic greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change.
The Leaders’ Summit may have shown some progress, but it but fell short of the Pacific Islands’ expectations, according to Dame Meg Taylor, the outgoing secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum.
“The window to act to safeguard the future of our Blue planet and avoid a more catastrophic event than this current pandemic is closing fast,” Taylor said. “The COP26 meeting in Glasgow this November must deliver enhanced NDC targets and commitment to climate neutrality by 2050 to assure a resilient future for our Pacific people and all people.”
The Leaders Summit, Taylor said, should have been a turning point, noting that the participating major economic powers are responsible for 80 percent of the global emissions.
“The message on the urgency to act is one that must now be taken up by all global leaders,” Taylor said. “For the Blue Pacific, and as set out in Forum Leaders’ Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now, this is a matter of survival and cannot be downplayed,”
While embracing the U.S government’s return to the Paris Agreement, the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN) said climate commitments are not ambitious enough to save Pacific Island nations from the threats of climate change.
“The climate targets announced are not sufficient and are not aligning to what the scientific community, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has been calling for, which is to reduce emissions and limit global warming to 1.50 celsius,” said Lavetanalagi Seru, the Climate Justice Project officer for PICAN.
Seru noted that the Pacific communities are already waist-deep in experiencing the impact of climate change that already cost billions to the region’s economies.
“Our governments are having to dig deeper into their treasury to fund for climate adaptation and loss & damage, which is something the U.S. and other industrialized nations should be doing, and these countries must set up a new window for financing loss and damage,” Seru said.
The UN Environment Program 2020 Emissions Gap Report warns that the current climate pledges will limit global warming to no less than 3.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, while the NDC Synthesis Report released by the United Nations Framework on Convention on Climate Change had highlighted that the emission reduction ranges to meet the 1.5°C temperature goal should be around 45 percent lower than current targets.
Globally, the top four emitters, U.S., China, the EU27 + UK and India contribute 55 percent of total emissions, while the Group of 20 accounted for 75 percent of total emissions.
Separate scientific reports are harbingers of what’s coming to the tiny Pacific islands. The most substantial impacts of climate change include losses of coastal infrastructure and land, more intense cyclones and droughts, failure of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, losses of coral reefs and mangroves, and the spread of certain diseases.
A 2018 US Geological Survey study predicted rising sea levels would leave some of the atolls without potable drinking water by 2035 and with annual flooding on the majority of their landmass by 2055-65.
In 2019, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified the low-lying coral atoll nations — the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, which all average just a few feet above sea level — as most particularly vulnerable to rising oceans. It warned that the sea level could rise by 1 to 4 feet by 2100, potentially submerging these nations, making them uninhabitable by 2050.
In February this year, the Pacific Island Climate Adaptation Science Center noted that climate change is adding new layers of complexity to the economic and environmental challenges besetting Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and Palau. The report highlights the impacts of climate on human health, ocean warming, sea-level rise along with low-lying coastal infrastructure and typhoon strength in these three jurisdictions.
The “Current and Future Climate of the Marshall Islands” report released by the Pacific Science Climate Change noted that by 2030, the islands' surrounding sea level will rise by 9 centimeters, drastically increasing the frequency and the impact of storm surges and coastal flooding.
The report further noted that that annual rainfall will intensify while warmer temperatures and drier periods will persist. “The impacts of droughts can include the Islands' wells becoming brackish or run dry, making water supplies unusable for consumption and agriculture. During floods, saltwater and dirt creep into and contaminate freshwater reserves and damage infrastructure,” the report said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken acknowledged that small island nations are being hit hardest by climate change, yet the U.S. grant programs for these sinking locations are underfunded.
He said the U.S. needs to invest more in small island developing states that lack the resources and capacity to handle the destabilizing impacts of the climate anomaly, which causes the sea levels to rise. “In 2020, only 3 percent of climate finance was directed toward these countries. We’ve got to fix that,” Blinken said.
To supplement its assistance, Blinken said the U.S. is deploying experts and technology to vulnerable islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean “to improve early warning and response systems, and we’re investing in building resilience in areas like infrastructure and agriculture.”
Despite Blinken’s assurance of aid, Taylor lamented that the world’s biggest emitters have not delivered the $100 billion per year they have promised to provide the Pacific Island nations by 2020.
Taylor’s concern was echoed by Dr. Jale Samuwai, the Climate Finance Advisor for Oxfam in Pacific. “The lack of new climate finance commitments coming from the summit is alarming given the urgency of addressing climate change impacts in vulnerable countries in the Pacific,” Sumuwai said. “The Pacific countries right now are fighting a battle on two fronts— Covid -19 and climate change, and without urgent and scaled-up support from developed countries such as the U.S., Canada, Japan and others, the chances of our economies surviving really looks bleak.”
In FSM, Yatilman said world leaders gaze way far ahead into the future, overfocusing on emission growth so much so that they overlook the close-at-hand problems with instant solutions that can decelerate temperature rise.
“We must reduce short-lived climate pollutants quickly and at a massive scale,” Yatilman said.
“Solutions readily exist to cut the ‘super pollutant’ emissions of methane, black carbon soot, tropospheric ozone, and also HFCs (the gases used in the expanding refrigeration and air conditioning sectors that are now controlled under the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol," Yatilman said.
He said solving the short-lived super pollutants will not only reduce warming and allow time for longer-term climate measures to take effect, but will also save countless lives and money by improving respiratory health, protecting food production, and ensuring equitable access to cooling worldwide.
While noting that current commitments and plans are commendable, Yatilman said they are insufficient.
“Strategies to flatten the curve in emissions growth by 2050 will not save countries like Micronesia – nor will they save the lives of many people in larger, more resilient countries where wildfires, heat waves, floods, and storms will increasingly harm communities, devastate lives, and cripple economies,” Yatilman said.