PARIS - Solomon Islands Negotiator Elisabeth Holland and her fellow Pacific Islands representatives have a problem. And it is our problem too. Regardless of whether a strong climate change agreement is reached, it may not allay the dislocations of people already underway in the small atoll nation she represents, and in the member nations of the Pacific Small Island Developing States more generally.
Several international migrations have already occurred, according to Holland, and Fiji and the Solomon Islands are drafting laws to allow them to accept climate refugees from neighboring countries. "The Pacific leaders are recognizing they have a problem that will stretch across international boundaries," Holland said. "They are trying to solve that problem, knowing that they may or may not be able to find solutions within the UN system."
Sea level rise, salinization of coral island fresh water, climate-related cyclones and tropical storms have made life very difficult for many across the Pacific islands, leading the delegation to call for more ambitious objectives (a 1.5 °C level of greenhouse gas-driven warming by 2100 rather than the 2 °C (3.6 °F) accepted by most scientists and diplomats. And the Pacific island nations want the United Nations to adopt a generous policy of compensating front-line countries for the losses they disproportionately incur.
A tally by the think tank Germanwatch, using insurance company data lists 530,000 deaths from some 15,000 extreme weather events between 1994 and 2013 which generated some US $2.2 trillion in damages (adjusted to purchasing power parity). Over that time, the nations suffering most - Honduras, Myanmar, Haiti, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Bangladesh - were all poor developing nations.
"Vulnerability is the reality," said Bangladesh Ministry of Environment Negotiator Sultan Ahmed. "People are living it. This is not rhetoric for the COP meeting." He said some 35 million of the country's 160 million people, predominantly poor, can only live in lowland areas for about four months of the year and must otherwise relocate to higher ground. Rice yields have dropped as brackish water has replaced potable fresh water in many areas, and cyclones pose an increasing threat.
Holland noted that recent Alaskan village resettlements cost some US $10 million per village, and that international migration will soon be commonplace in the Pacific, although it will be challenging, time-consuming, and expensive. Elsewhere too, resettlement assistance is being sought. "Bangladesh wants loss and damages," Ahmed said, in order to pay for the dramatic changes ahead. "But mostly we want a legally binding agreement. It's everybody's problem. If there is a legally binding agreement we can all count on it and work on how to implement that thing. Then every government will feel an obligation to do something for mitigation and adaptation. Otherwise it is rhetoric. There is no time to wait."
Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga of Tuvalu lamented that critics of addressing loss and damage in the Paris agreement did not want to codify special rights for the especially vulnerable. Citing a study that some 75 percent of Tuvalu's population said they would migrate immediately if there were no dramatic improvements in their circumstances, Sopoaga said his people were only asking for respect for their sovereign rights as people.
"There is no regime under the UN to deal with these people [those who would migrate]. If we come out of Paris with no statement on loss and damage these people will be left behind. The world will be moving forward, but they will be drowned."
If as the old adage goes, a nation's greatness is truly measured by how it treats its most vulnerable, then the community of nations must also face its obligations. The Pacific Small Island Developing States would do well to continue their self-help approach as they are vulnerable to weather changes as well as to the UN and the self-interests of its wealthiest members. But the UN would also do well to codify an equitable means of indemnifying nations at the front lines of climate change as their emissions were not the cause of the problem. But the plight of Tuvalu and Bangladesh and the other most vulnerable is on the conscience of us all.