ClimateWire… Maldives: Paris deal must give islands a ‘sense of security’

By Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter

Published: Tuesday, May 26, 2015

More than 25 years ago, the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of the Maldives foresaw the devastating consequences global warming held for it and other islands, and decided that banding together within the United Nations was the best way to form the political clout needed to save themselves from extinction.

Now for the first time since its creation in 1990, the Maldives is chairing the Alliance of Small Island States that it helped form to lobby on behalf of low-lying states. As nations head into the most significant climate change negotiations in perhaps a century, its new chairman, Maldives Ambassador Ahmed Sareer, said the agreement expected to be reached in Paris in December must keep his country and other vulnerable nations safe.

“These are countries which are on the front lines of climate change impacts, so we have always been advocating for a deal … that could give the island nations a sense of security,” Sareer said.

“In the Maldives, we have seen throughout the past two or three decades sea-level rise, coastal erosion taking place, the ocean acidification. We have been constantly faced with these impacts. Therefore, this is our chance that there has to be a deal, there has to be a strong agreement in Paris.”

The Maldives assumes the head of AOSIS while its best-known climate change advocate, Mohamad Nasheed, sits imprisoned on terrorism charges. Nasheed, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, has declared his innocence while his supporters, including celebrity human rights attorney Amal Clooney, call him the victim of a rushed and politically motivated show trial.

A number of climate change activists like co-founder Bill McKibben — who allied closely with Nasheed when he pushed countries to act at the last major U.N. summit in Copenhagen in 2009 and committed his own country to becoming carbon-neutral by 2020 — have blasted the new government and questioned its moral authority to lead on climate change (ClimateWire, May 1).

Sareer bristles at that and said his country has never stopped speaking for the vulnerable.

“Climate change has been an issue of the people of the Maldives. It is not something any particular administration can say is its own issue,” he said. Sareer noted that it was the Maldives’ initiative that helped create AOSIS. The country held the first-ever conference on sea-level rise in 1989 and has raised the issue in every international forum for 30 years.

“It is not a particular administration that has kept on this issue,” he said. Under the rule of current President Abdulla Yameen, he said, “there has not been any less focus given on this particular issue.”

A target with ‘moral imperative’

Sareer called for a Paris agreement that keeps global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. With just 20 negotiating days left, he insisted that it is still possible to keep to that ambitious target, despite cautions from U.N. leaders at the highest levels that a deal won’t even keep the average temperature rise below 2 C.

The half-degree difference, he said, “is a very big difference for island countries,” and noted that for the Maldives — just 3 meters above sea level at its highest point — even the slightest rise has a major impact.

“Our ambition has to be at 1.5 degrees, which is a moral imperative,” he said. “If the small island states like the Maldives can be protected with an ambition like 1.5 degrees, it is going to be a huge benefit for the rest of the world.”

Countries, he said, need to show “much more seriousness” but maintained it is too early to judge whether the targets being submitted to the United Nations for Paris will hit the mark. Sareer also declined to comment on the emissions pledge from Canada, widely criticized as unambitious, and reports of a worrisomely low target from Japan, saying he has not yet seen them.

Ultimately, Sareer said, the ambition of the Paris deal will come down not to technical capacity, but political will.

“If all countries increase their ambition, there is nothing we cannot achieve. That is the message we want to see in Paris,” he said. “If we take a lethargic viewpoint that nothing is going to be achieved, then nothing is going to be achieved.”

The targets, known in U.N. parlance as “intended nationally determined contributions” from developed and developing nations alike, will make up the heart of the Paris deal.

Sareer said island nations also insist on seeing a mechanism to compensate countries for the consequences of climate change that they cannot prepare for. He called the so-called loss and damage issue “critical” and pointed to Cyclone Pam, which earlier this year devastated Vanuatu and other countries.

“For us, there have been so many incidents this year alone. We want to give the message that this is something so critical for the island countries. There has to be a package anchored in the agreement,” Sareer said, though he acknowledged it is still unclear how it will be done.

Meanwhile, he said, developing countries must once and for all learn where the $100 billion that wealthy countries vowed to mobilize in public and private funds annually by 2020 will come from.

“These pledges are out in the air. We have not seen much tangible,” Sareer said. “There has to be something for us to see. It is no point in having certain funds behind a wall and we are not able to reach them.”

Finally, Sareer argued that the Paris deal must be internationally legally binding. Even, he said, if that plays straight into the hands of Republicans in the U.S. Congress who are insisting any deal the Obama administration makes in Paris must be a treaty so that it is forced to a vote in the U.S. Senate, where it will surely fail.

“It has to be a legally binding, strong agreement. Unless it is legally binding, it doesn’t make any sense,” Sareer said.

“Every country has its own constraints, not only the United States,” he said. “Of course, we know the reluctance of Capitol Hill. That is something the administration will have to face.”