I’m not joking.
You see, from 30 November to 11 December 2015, the world’s leaders will converge on a suburb of Paris, France to craft a “universal, legally binding” agreement to limit climate change and help vulnerable countries adapt to the impacts of global temperature and sea level rise. If the Paris summit fails to craft that agreement, then, to quote Bob Marley out of context: “many more will have to suffer/many more will have to die/don’t ask me why.” If the summit half-succeeds by arriving at some watered-down, unambitious, middle-of-the-road accord, the results for islands, coastal and low-lying areas will be cataclysmic. Some islands could disappear altogether. Some will lose their coastlines, beaches, coastal towns and infrastructure. Others islands will survive, but be almost uninhabitable due to the unpredictability of the weather, the devastation of fisheries and agriculture, and the costs involved in building, re-building and retrofitting infrastructure to survive increasingly intense climate onslaughts.
1.5 to Stay Alive. . . Over Three, You Cease to Be
Five years ago, at a Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, that was advertised as the world’s best opportunity to “Seal the Deal” on climate change, a slogan was born:
That slogan was coined by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and adopted by CARICOM to highlight the fact that some small islands will disappear if the average global temperature rises more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. They will simply be swallowed up by the rising seas. Entire populations will have to be re-settled elsewhere. Entire nations and civilisations will simply cease to exist. The “1.5 to Stay Alive” slogan was meant to highlight the plight of island states, which are more vulnerable to climate change than many larger countries. The scientists who study climate change basically say that the planet earth is screwed if global temperatures rise over 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. But the short distance between 1.5 and 2°C is the difference between life and death for many island states.
In December 2014, Peru hosted the penultimate climate conference before the 2015 Paris finale, those hoping to keep temperature rise below 1.5 °C received a shocking wake-up call. The final declaration for the Peru Conference said:
“Noting with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels,”
Reading between the diplomatic lines, that paragraph contains one of the most damning condemnations of the process to date. What it basically says is that we’re nowhere close to keeping the temperature rise under 1.5°C. All these headline-grabbing pledges you see from China, India, the USA and the EU sound great individually, but add them up, and the current picture is a troubling 4 °C rise over pre-industrial levels. A 4° rise makes the Caribbean close to unlivable, and guarantees that pacific islands vanish from the face of the earth.
The End of the World As We Know It
The real bad news is not that Peru said we were still far away from the 1.5 °C target, it was that the negotiators tacitly conceded that we’re never going to get there. The Peru Conference marked the shift from “hard” emissions targets to “soft” ones. Before Peru, we’ve been looking at emissions mathematically: If we want to keep temperature rise under 2°C, then we need to limit global emissions to X-amount. Once we agree on that, you can prescribe a hard cap that each country has to meet, and make that cap legally binding. You can say the USA has to reduce by this much, India has to stay below that much, and Europe must switch this many coal plants to renewable energy plants. The Peru Conference gave up on that approach, saying instead:
9. Reiterates its invitation to each Party to communicate to the secretariat its intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;
10. Agrees that each Party’s intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 will represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party;
14. Agrees that the information to be provided by Parties communicating their intended nationally determined contributions, in order to facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding, may include, as appropriate, inter alia, quantifiable information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;
What does that mean? Basically, that the world isn’t going to tell you how much to cut. Instead, you tell the world what you feel comfortable cutting – or what you can get past your parliaments and business interests – but, please, make it something more than you’ve already announced you’ll cut, and try to make it “fair and ambitious.”
Worse than that is the fact that the Peru document does not include a single mechanism to actually monitor whether these self-imposed targets are being met. It’s an honour system for a group of emitters that have acted in a less than honourable manner for the last two decades. If this is the system that is enshrined into treaty later this year in Paris, it’s the end of the world as we know it.
No More Mr. Nice Guy
Let us be clear: If the upcoming Paris Conference fails to reach a satisfactory agreement on 11th December, climate Armageddon doesn’t begin on the 12th. The Conference may end up doing what each successive conference has done – posture for first week, get serious in the final days, and, after 72 hours of sleepless negotiation, kick the can down the road and defer any serious decisions until some date in the future.
But failure or business as usual in Paris will set in train an almost irrevocable series of events that will fundamentally alter life in the Caribbean to our detriment. Islands will feel the pain first and worst, as we are already beginning to experience.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a global scientific body that analyses “the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.” Their 5th Assessment Report on Climate Change was published last year. If you have time, read the chapters on Small Islands, Coastal Systems and Low-Lying Areas, and Food Security and Food Production Systems. In summary, here’s what the IPCC scientists say is in store for small islands:
- More Sea Level Rise
- More hurricanes
- Changing rainfall patterns – more floods and droughts
- Increases in submergence, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion
- Increases in the erosion of beaches, sand dunes, and cliffs
- Degrading of fresh groundwater
- Coral bleaching, reef degradation
- Negative impact on fisheries due to destruction of reef ecosystems and migration of fish stocks
- Some islands rendered uninhabitable by Sea Level Rise
- Hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and will be displaced due to land loss by year 2100
- Malaria, Dengue, Chikungunya, Cholera, Leptospirosis and other health risks to increase
- Deterioration in standards of sanitation and hygiene due to freshwater scarcity and more intense droughts and storms
- Increase in invasive species and aquatic pathogens
- Greater economic impact in Small islands from Sea Level Rise and hurricanes because most of their population and infrastructure are in the coastal zone
- All aspects of food security are affected by climate change, including food access, utilization, and price stability
- Lower crop yields in the Caribbean, resulting in lower nutrition quality
- Changes in temperature and precipitation will contribute to increased global food prices by 2050, with estimated increases ranging from 3 to 84%, depending on the crop
- Projected lengthening seasonal dry periods, and increasing frequency of drought are expected to increase demand for water throughout the Caribbean
- Caribbean tourism to potentially decline in the medium term by as much as – US$146 million
A full read of the voluminous IPCC reports make one thing abundantly clear: Our existence hangs in the balance. Our quality of life will get worse, and our children’s lives may be unliveable unless they migrate. As Buju Banton says “Who can afford to run will run/But what about those who can’t?/They will have to stay. . .”
This year, and Paris, represents a stand up and fight moment for the Caribbean. The public diplomacy and advocacy of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Caribbean has been focused on explaining what will happen to us if the climate change is not controlled, and hoping that gentle moral suasion would guilt major emitters into action. AOSIS has resisted strong calls from within the group to be a radical – even disruptive – force in climate change negotiations out of fear that such action would marginalize us or be counterproductive. But we cannot be complicit handmaidens to our own destruction. We must demand that those with the responsibility and the means step up and solve this problem.
Let’s look at the facts: Since 1850, more than half of carbon that’s ended up in the atmosphere has come from the United States and the EU, and only 11 percent is from China. Among the world’s top-10 emitters, Canada and the United States are far and away the biggest per-capita polluters, while India is well below the world average.
How about electricity consumption? The average Cambodian uses 164 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The average Angolan 248. The average Indian, 684 and the average Chinese 3,298. Meanwhile, the average American is consuming 13,246kWh while Canadians burn 16,473kWh – 24 times what an Indian consumes.
You tell me who bears the greatest global responsibility to reduce their emissions and limit global warming. AOSIS can’t be reticent in calling a spade a spade.
At the same time, we cannot be so slavishly devoted to traditional negotiating blocs that we act against our own self-interest. While the mathematical and historical facts are clear on who bears the responsibility for our current predicament, it is also true that many of our brothers in the developing world have been less than helpful negotiators in recent Climate Conferences. Some of our friends have been short sighted and self-interested to the point of hostility to our survival. Europe, on the other hand, has shown good faith and at least some willingness to engage constructively on the issue. Solidarity cuts both ways. I can’t be expected to show solidarity with you if you refuse to show solidarity with me against existential threats. Last month, the EU-LAC Foundation asked me my thoughts on new approaches in the year between Peru and Paris. I said then that:
Traditional North-South negotiating blocs have, to date, proven inadequate to tackle Climate Change. There is still limited time and opportunity to reach beyond the traditional comfort zones to achieve success in Paris. The EU and CELAC are now fortuitously thrust together in what could be the final opportunity to meet the defining existential challenge of our age. The EU and CELAC should consult with each other formally on this matter in the months leading to Paris. We should harmonise ambitious positions and coalesce into a new, decisive negotiating bloc. The EU should target its expertise, technology and financing assistance on the island and coastal states of CELAC, as a tangible and compelling example of what is possible in North-South climate cooperation.
What this all means is that the playbook for the next 10 months must be re-written. New alliances; new tactics; new arguments. 1.5 °C is still our target, but it is becoming less and less of a realistic goal with each passing day. We must fight in every venue and at every opportunity for that target, but we must also prepare for the possibility of a world with a temperature increase of two or more degrees. That means more money – much more money – to fund adaptation from those major emitters responsible for climate change. They must realise that either they pay to change their internal modes of production and consumption, or they pay more for the external damage that they cause.
We must consider legal challenges. In the absence of enforcement mechanisms in the Peru document, we must fashion our own, and make climate compliance the litmus test that guides our diplomatic engagement and alliances. We must weigh the cost of derailing the process against the cost of acquiescing to a process that ensures our destruction. If this year is business as usual on the climate front, we’re all dead.