History Shows World Must Seize Opportunity Presented by US and China Ratification

News out of the G20 on Saturday that China and the United States ratified the Paris Agreement, presenting their official documents to the United Nations Secretary General in person, marked an important milestone in the global effort to build a universal climate change regime and is also an opportunity to reflect a bit on the history of the process.

Most accounts trace it to the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, but a conference hosted by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former president of the Maldives, held in the island country’s capital in 1989 did much to bring global warming and impacts to international attention.

In fact, over the course of the previous decade, when the science of climate change was still in its infancy, many islands around the world started to experience abnormally high tidal surges. In 1987, the Maldives’ capital city, Malé, saw seawater crest across much of the island causing millions in damage.

Island nation representatives from around the globe met with scientific advisors and other experts for a week to review available scientific literature on global warming and sea level rise and issued a prescient call to action, known as the “Malé Declaration.

The remarkably prescient 6-page declaration is one of the seminal documents in the international response to climate change and one that is hard to read without feeling regret for what could have been if only the world had heeded its call sooner:

“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.”

It went on to identify the need for an international framework convention to address climate change with many of the concepts later articulated in the UNFCCC and later the Kyoto Protocol.

What’s more, the Malé Conference attendees went on to form the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in 1990, which would assume a prominent role in advocating for international action on climate change from Rio to Kyoto to Copenhagen to COP 21 in Paris.

In recent years, scientists have measured with much greater certainty how much seas have risen around the world and the findings are startling.

Largely because of melting glaciers and ice sheets, as well as thermal expansion, the world’s oceans are now on average are about eight inches higher than a century ago.

Since 1992, sea levels have increased by an average of 3 inches around the world and projections have it exceed thee to six feet by the end of the century. Some researchers even believe this modeling is far too conservative and haven’t ruled out that level of rise in the next few decades.

The accelerating impacts have not only called attention to the need to rapidly implement the measures to cut emissions in the Paris Agreement, but overperform on them and get started as soon as possible.

This starts with bringing the agreement into force as soon as possible. It doesn’t take effect until 30 days after 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions have finished the ratification process. And though the move by China and the US gives that effort a big boost, only 26 countries—18 of them AOSIS members—have done so to date.

If the this process shows anything, it’s that we must secure progress whenever we can and build on it year after year because the political momentum for climate change action can be as fickle as the weather.