Climate Change is a planetary emergency that threatens the survival of many small island states.
For some low-lying states like the Maldives, Kiribati, and some of the Bahamas, the risks from sea level rise threaten their physical existence, as they would very easily be inundated by sea levels in excess of one metre above current levels – levels that can be reached by 2100, if significant action is not taken immediately to reduce and ultimately limit the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to well below 350 parts per million (ppm) in the long run.
For other states, their social-economic viability will be compromised, inter alia:
- By the rising seas which will damage their coastal zones, where the majority of their socio-economic infrastructure is located;
- By the saline intrusion into their coastal aquifers which will negatively impact on their drinking water and agricultural activities;
- By the destruction of their coral reefs and their fisheries habitats that result from increases in ocean acidification and rising temperatures; and
- By the impact of stronger tropical cyclones that can destroy years of positive development in a matter of hours, as has been demonstrated time and time again, including by the recent experiences of Cook Islands (2005); Cuba (2008); Fiji (2008); Grenada (2004); Haiti (2004; 2008); Niue (2004); and others.
Photo courtesy of U.N. Video Library
The major finding of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), published in 2007, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was that warming of the climate system is ‘unequivocal’ and that temperature increases since the mid-20th century are very likely due to anthropogenic (man-made) increases in atmospheric GHG concentrations. Carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas, has increased in atmospheric concentration from 278 parts per million (ppm) before the industrial revolution (the mid-19th century) to 381 ppm in 2007, and continues to rise by an average of about 2 ppm annually.
Many vulnerable developing countries have stressed the need for the UNFCCC negotiations to take account of scientific information released since the IPCC AR4. The more recent science points to climate change impacts and effects occurring much faster than previously forecast, leading to the potential for greatly underestimating the costs of inaction or delayed action. In particular, recent science indicates that sea-level rise over the next century is likely to be significantly higher than the estimates in the IPCC AR4 because of the accelerating loss of ice from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.
Due to rising concern over the scale and rapidity of impacts projected by the IPCC’s AR4, as well as more recent science, AOSIS and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), among others, have called for limiting global average temperature increases to well below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, citing their special vulnerability and unacceptable levels of damage even at the current 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels.
According to current scientific understanding, limiting warming to below 1.5°C would require long-term stabilisation of atmospheric GHG concentrations at below 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2-equivalent. In order to start on a pathway that could achieve this, AOSIS has proposed that global emissions should peak by 2015 at the latest, and decrease thereafter to at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050. With continuing reductions after 2050, present best estimates indicate that it is likely that temperatures would drop from peak global warming levels (below 2°C) to below 1.5°C by 2100.
Photo courtesy of U.N. Video Library
Impacts of Climate Change on SIDS
It is well known and confirmed by the IPCC in all of its assessments that small island developing states (SIDS) – whether located in the tropics or higher latitudes – have characteristics that make them especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These characteristics include their limited size, geographical dislocation, proneness to natural hazards and external shocks, high exposure of population and infrastructure and limited adaptive capacity. The vulnerabilities resulting from these characteristics are exacerbated by the effects of climate change – which include rising seas, acidification of oceans, coral bleaching, coastal erosion, flooding, loss of fresh water supplies, biodiversity loss and more frequent and intense weather events, including hurricanes.
Significant and sometimes severe impacts are already being experienced by small islands. Coral bleaching has already led to a loss of about 16 percent of the world’s coral reefs, with adverse effects on many islands. Intense tropical cyclones have become more frequent and stronger and have caused much damage in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Kiribati and the Maldives have already lost some of their islands to rising waters, and land losses have been reported in other Pacific Island countries as well as in the Caribbean. Shoreline erosion and flooding has caused major damage to roads, public utilities and households, and salt water damage to agricultural crops and fresh water lens has caused severe food and fresh water shortages in a number of low-lying islands.
These impacts are predicted to intensify and worsen rapidly in coming decades. Sea levels will rise, compounding the effects of more intense tropical storms, and threatening the territorial integrity and stability of political boundaries of many countries. In some cases, the very existence of countries is in doubt. A recent submission by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to the UNFCCC indicated that a number of SIDS are now under threat of ‘statelessness’, a situation which may occur long before rising seas overtop the land.