AOSIS: A history of leadership at the UNFCCC

By Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, President of the Republic of Maldives

This week, world leaders are gathered in Paris for what is hoped to be the culmination of a 25-year effort to effectively address climate change. The event has special meaning for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of low- lying island and coastal nations that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and that first helped inspire the international response to this crisis. The existence of these islands will continue to remain under threat due to ever increasing extreme events, if bold action is not taken immediately.

The journey to this conference in many ways traces the history of AOSIS, which debuted as a negotiating bloc at the margins of the 2nd World Climate Conference in 1990. In fact, concern over sea level rise began to emerge as early as 1987 in the Maldives, when record tides flooded our capital city, Malé, and almost one third of the archipelago, prompting the Government to scrutinize the cause of this rare phenomenon.

It was then that the former President of the Maldives, His Excellency Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, brought this issue to the attention of the international community at the Commonwealth Summit for Heads of State and Governments in Vancouver and the United Nations in 1987.

Some 26 of the countries present were small island states that were also experiencing unusual weather events. As concern for the fate of their islands continued to grow, these nations decided to convene a special conference on sea level rise in the Maldives in 1989, in order to review the latest research on the subject

In a remarkably prescient declaration, and a seminal document in the international response to climate change, the leaders at the meeting issued one of the earliest global calls to climate action:

“In light of the scientific consensus regarding the likelihood of climate change and global warming and deeply concerned over the changing global environment and its possible adverse effects, particularly the threat of sea level rise, the Small Island States gathered here declare their intent to work, collaborate and seek international cooperation to protect the low-lying small coastal and island States of the world from the dangers posed by climate change, global warming and sea level rise.”

The “Malé Declaration,” as it became known, also called for the establishment of a United Nations framework convention on climate change, leading to the official formation of the Alliance of Small Island States the next year.

AOSIS would go on to earn a reputation for being the “moral voice” of the U.N. climate negotiations, by advocating for global action that would protect its most vulnerable members, and which reflect the latest science in the field.

25 years since the founding of AOSIS, it is blatant that world leaders can no longer overlook the steep costs of inaction against climate change.

Even with pledges for climate action from over 160 countries, including the world’s biggest emitters, we still face a rise in global temperature of 2.7 degrees Celsius or more by the end of the century.

At an increase of less than 1 degree Celsius, we are already experiencing record tropical storms, droughts, and sea level rise.

The Paris agreement must therefore address the full scope of the crisis. This should begin with ambitious commitments from all parties, coupled with a robust process to drive bolder actions year after year, in order to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius – the scientifically affirmed threshold for a safer climate.

It is now evident that certain climate impacts can no longer be managed by cutting emissions or through adaptation, and unfortunately. An international mechanism on Loss and Damage must be a distinct element of the Paris package and lead to real action on the ground in the countries that need it most.

Finally, building renewable energy systems and adapting to impacts in developing countries will require an annual investment of at least $100 billion USD by 2020. In order to aid this cause, the Green Climate Fund has begun to deliver much needed resources. While this is indeed a commendable beginning, it must be continually scaled up in the years to come.

The Maldives believes that climate change poses as the most pressing developmental and security challenge of the 21st Century. As one of the world’s lowest lying island nations, our country faces potentially devastating impacts if bold climate action is not taken immediately. While my Government is committed to undertaking all necessary efforts to strengthen the Maldives’ resilience to this global phenomenon, we cannot do this alone. Every nation has a role. I am confident that through the engagement of all stakeholders, along with a genuine commitment by world leaders to take decisive climate action, COP21 will succeed in providing a foundation for an ambitious post 2015 climate governance regime.