Small Island Developing States at COP21

“The new [climate] agreement must continue to recognize the specific needs and vulnerabilities of SIDS”.[1] This statement, coming from the Maldives on behalf of AOSIS (the Alliance for Small Island States), brings to the forefront the plight of Small Island Developing States and their unique position in the context of climate change. These states have commonly been referred to as the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to climate change, as they are already experiencing the devastating its devastating impacts. However, the Prime Minister of Aruba has stated that as a result of their unique position, “small island nations can be laboratories to demonstrate how a successful transition to a greener and more sustainable way of living can occur in all countries”.[2]

On Tuesday, December 2nd, AOSIS met with United States President Barack Obama to discuss how rising sea levels caused by melting ice threatens to wipe a number of these states from the map completely.[3]  “I’m an island boy,” claimed President Obama, having experienced these issues first hand from his upbringing in Hawaii. [4] In the past, SIDS have struggled to gain audience with big players at these global environmental conferences because they are not significant players in trade and business matters.[5] Tuesday’s meeting with Obama is a big step in the right direction for these states to having their plight recognized.

AOSIS has been demanding for a legally binding agreement to come out of COP21 because, according to Kiribati President Anote Tong, “It’s a matter of survival”.[6] SIDS are expected to be heavily influenced by a number of the impacts of climate change, including: rising sea levels and coastal inundation; extreme weather events such as hurricanes, monsoons, subsidence, droughts, etc.; disruption of coral reefs, and; severe damage to coastlines and agriculture. [7] A number of representatives at COP21, including both the Gambia and Italian Ministers of Environment are calling for a change to the traditional 2 degrees Celsius ceiling for carbon emissions.[8] [9]. Instead, they argue the target should be 1.5 degrees Celsius because the current two-degree target will not be enough to mitigate climate change’s damaging impacts on these island nations. [10]

President Tong claimed on Tuesday that Kiribati has “identified another 400 or so [communities] that need to be relocated in the future”. [11] Should the business-as-usual approach to climate and the environment be continued past COP21, SIDS are in extreme danger of having to relocate their populations to higher ground. Climate Central has stated that “if the global warming rate were to increase to 4 degrees Celsius, 93 percent of the population in the Marshall Islands, 88 percent of the people in Tuvalu and 77 percent of Kiribati’s population would be at risk,”[12] of losing their homes entirely.

While details of the new climate agreement have not been released as of today (Saturday, December 5th at 12:00 p.m. EST), there is hope that the plight of these SIDS will be recognized. Over the coming days, these states are hopeful that a legally binding agreement will come into effect that will save their homes from climate-induced destruction, and their populations from migrating to new, non-indigenous homes. “They [residents of SIDS] do have a right to dignity and a sense of place,” stated President Obama.[13]

This piece was written by Vicky Fenwick-Sehl

Vicky is a recent graduate of the Master’s of Climate Change program. She currently works as a research assistant for Dr. Sarah Burch and the Earth System Governance Project, as well as for the Master’s of Public Health program at McMaster University as a curriculum assistant.

[4] ibid
[7] ibid
[10] ibid
[12] ibid


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