UN General Assembly offers ‘last chance’ for climate leadership


By Thoriq Ibrahim

The international effort to address climate change relies on a variety of disciplines to do its work: most notably, the scientific research that shows greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the crisis and the legal analysis that argues we are obligated to do something about it.

But as world leaders gather here this week for the United Nations General Assembly—perhaps their last opportunity to look each other in the eye and commit to bold action before November’s vital climate change talks in Paris—it is also important to reflect on lessons from history.

History will certainly be on the minds of the world’s small island leaders who have come to advocate for an effective climate agreement.

To be sure, the last time a planet-saving treaty seemed within reach—the 2009 climate change talks in Copenhagen—we learned how quickly optimism could turn to despair.

And in the years that followed we also witnessed how serious the consequences of inaction could be for small island states.

In 2015 alone, Cyclone Pam and Typhoon Maysak—both record storms—left a trail of destruction in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and FSM, killing dozens, upending businesses and destroying 90 percent of the housing stock in some of the affected communities.

While a recent report from NASA indicates that the world may already be locked into one metre of sea level rise, not only putting small islands and low-lying coastal states at risk for severe flooding if not total inundation, but the major cities of New York, Shanghai, London, Mumbai, and others as well.

We no longer have the luxury of putting off difficult decisions for another day. Doing what is required means we will have to resolve outstanding disagreements in the lead up to Paris and very likely at the meeting itself.

Legally binding

From the point of view of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of 44 low lying island and coastal nations from around the world, this means finding an accommodation on the climate negotiation’s four main pillars: mitigation, adaptation, finance, and loss and damage.

To start, it is necessary to acknowledge that the impacts described above, and many others, are occurring with an average global temperature increase of only about 1-degree Celsius above pre industrial levels.

AOSIS has long contended that “well below 1.5 degrees Celsius” is the right global goal to be aiming for, which is evident in the latest science, the UN’s own scientific review, and the extent of the extreme weather we are witnessing on every continent.

In terms of emissions reductions, therefore, the 2015 agreement must be an ambitious and legally binding Protocol capable of limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This will require a pathway for the agreement to allow for a dramatic increase in ambition through consecutive commitments toward achieving our long-term goal.

And we know this can only happen if longstanding commitments on climate finance are met. Many small islands, for example, have ambitious plans to transform our energy sectors to renewable power sources, but we simply cannot do so without the promised international support.

At the same time, many island states and other vulnerable countries are struggling to adjust to life changing and in some cases deadly climate impacts. Increased support for adaptation is therefore also essential for us to keep up with the new realities of a warming world.

Finally, with the costs of inaction mounting, and slow-onset impacts such as ocean acidification and sea level rise growing worse by the day, the agreement must address impacts that can no longer mitigated against or adapted to.

A mechanism for effectively dealing with loss and damages needs to be anchored and given permanence in the 2015 agreement.

AOSIS formed 25 years ago this year and we have been one of the leading advocates for international climate action ever since.

It is tragic that more has not already been done to turn back the crisis, but it’s not too late to avoid truly catastrophic impacts if we do what is necessary in Paris. History will not forgive us for doing anything less.

Thoriq Ibrahim is Minister of Environment and Energy for the Maldives and Chair of AOSIS.