Telling of danger at home, island nations gain support for 1.5 degree warming target

marshall islands

LE BOURGET, France — With at least two days of around-the-clock negotiations left to go, a draft climate agreement released Wednesday still contains an ambitious goal that may yet prove impossible: 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The number represents an ambitious limit to future global warming, long promoted by island nations like the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, along with other nations now being hit with the destructive impacts of climate change — including rising seas and devastating super storms. A scientific consensus has emerged that even if the planet warms by 1.5 degrees or less in the coming decades, a vast number of people will eventually suffer what now plagues the island nations.

“The paradox of global warming is that it hits those who are not responsible first,” said Prince Albert of Monaco, lending his support for a new initiative led by these islands. “These victims embody the responsibility of each and every one of us. They are not exceptions, they are merely ahead of us.”

An hour after the draft agreement was released, Western allies like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Prince Albert joined island leaders at an event announcing Pacific Rising, a “Marshall Plan” for the Pacific that would help these tiny nations adapt by investing in renewable energy, sustainable business, education and culture “amid a a possible mass migration of people.”

And the migration has already begun.

Last year, Kiribati purchased land 1,200 miles away in Fiji where it could resettle climate migrants. And about 10,000 of the Marshall Islands’ 70,000 people now live in the small town of Springdale, Arkansas as the archipelago gets less inhabitable due to climate change. Thousands more are waiting to leave but cannot yet afford the trip, GroundTruth reporting fellows Coleen Jose, Hendrik Hinzel and Kim Wall found during a trip to the Marshall Islands earlier this year.

“It’s not fun to watch youngsters fear the sea,” said Tony deBrum, minister of foreign affairs of the Marshall Islands, at the launch on Wednesday. “We grew up on the edge of the sea. We would jump in the water during high tide because we had a great time. Now they run away because it has become a threat.”

DeBrum is one of the island leaders who has been extremely prolific before and during the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21). With so much on the line, he and his fellow island leaders can’t afford to go home now.

“Other leaders have left [COP21], but they can’t leave,” said Mary Robinson, former prime minister of Ireland and founder of a climate justice foundation, lending her support to Pacific Rising. “Their existence is at stake.”

Robinson lauded the role these nations have played in pushing forward global reform on climate change, citing the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership, signed in September 2013 in the Marshallese capital.

“Climate change has arrived,” the document begins. “It is the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific and one of the greatest challenges for the entire world.” Anywhere between 200 million and 1 billion people may need to migrate by 2050, according to estimates by the UN and researchers at various universities. Bangladesh, Philippines, Sudan and Malawi are already seeing massive internal displacement due to floods, storms, agricultural shifts and drought.

But the mood remained optimistic in Paris, with Kiribati’s President Anote Tong saying he was “energized” by the talks so far and confident about reaching an agreement to prevent the worst of what could happen.

Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoanga said he was “encouraged by the inroads we have made despite the jungle in front of us.” He highlighted the 1.5 degree target, which is considered by scientific analysts to be an extremely challenging goal to hit without immediate, drastic, and sustained reduction in emissions.

Emmanuel de Guzman, climate change commissioner of the Philippines, warned against an agreement that permits anything more than a 1.5-degree rise in average global temperature. With the cruelty of Typhoon Haiyan just two years in the past, and rebuilding efforts still in progress, he said, “We cannot go back to Manila with such a weak text that condemns so many of our people to hardship, even death.”

Prime Minister Sopoanga also nodded to the “loss and damage” clause that would require rich, carbon-heavy countries to pay for climate-related damages to poor countries that had little hand in causing climate change. “I encourage our negotiators not to blink and to save the most vulnerable islands and the least developed countries,” Sopoanga continued. “We are all converted and we are all singing one song. But we need to sing that song louder.”

Support for the 1.5 degree target and the loss and damage clause — along with urgency that a deal be reached by Friday night — was repeatedly reinforced during the Wednesday evening session at COP21.

Thoriq Ibrahim, minister of environment and energy of the Maldives, spoke bluntly on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island states, saying, “The call for a below 1.5-degree target can no longer be ignored.”