NEW YORK – Come visit the Maldives, its president pleaded with the world at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, moments before moving on to a passionate plea for help in the fight against climate change. The adjacent appeals illustrated a central dilemma for many small island developing States: their livelihoods or their lives?
The United Nations recognizes 38 member states, scattered in the waters of the world, as small island developing states grouped together because they face “unique social, economic and environmental challenges”.
This block is particularly vulnerable to climate change. This bloc is also particularly dependent on tourism – a major driver of climate change, alone responsible for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to sustainable tourism expert Stefan Gössling – and an industry devastated by the pandemic of coronavirus in progress.
The predicament these islands find themselves in is essentially recursive: attracting tourism for economic survival, which in turn contributes to climate change, which in turn bleaches the colorful reefs and destroys the pristine beaches that attract tourists. As it stands, by the end of the century, these low islands could drown entirely.
“The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is a death sentence for the Maldives,” President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih told the United Nations General Assembly last week.
The annual summit is an opportunity for each of the 193 members of the international body to stand out on the world stage. But the Maldives – perhaps best known to the world as the Indian Ocean’s playground for wealthy honeymooners and Bollywood celebrities – had a particularly high profile platform this year. Its foreign minister is the president of the General Assembly and Solih was speaking in third place – just after US President Joe Biden.
But calls for climate change are nothing new, made year after year as these islands are hit by storms and the seas rise like a “slow killer,” as April Baptiste of Colgate University puts it.
Baptiste, professor of environmental studies as well as African and Latin American studies, studies environmental justice in the Caribbean region. She says appeals from island states have been ignored for years because they were seen primarily as “must-have”. With little land, political power and financial capital, it was easy to ignore their plight. They are also islands with a history of exploitation stretching back centuries and states whose full-time residents – not tourists – are predominantly black and brown.
“You have this layer of race, racism, marginality to consider,” she said. “I absolutely believe that this is at the heart of the conversation why small island developing States are not taken seriously.”
Citizens and governments have taken matters into their own hands in recent years.
A man from the island nation of Kiribati applied for refugee status in New Zealand on the grounds that climate change posed an existential threat to his homeland, although he was ultimately deported. Vanuatu announced last week that it would seek to bring climate change to the International Court of Justice. Although largely symbolic – any decision would not be legally binding – this decision, as the government intends, seeks to clarify international law.
Last month, a group of Pacific island nations – struggling with the encroachment of salt water that is destroying crops and polluting freshwater supplies – made the decision to declare that their traditional maritime borders would remain intact, even though their coasts narrowed under the waves.
Gössling, professor at the Linnaeus University School of Business and Economics in Sweden, and Daniel Scott, professor of geography and environmental management at the Canadian University of Waterloo, are two creators of the Tourism Climate Change Vulnerability Index . With the aim of attracting the attention of policymakers, they identified the countries whose tourism economies are most exposed to climate change. Small island developing States were an important part of the list.
“The Maldives recognized this years ago and they stressed:” We are going to continue our tourism development, because it is the only way to make money in the next two decades before our islands are lost. “said Scott.
For small island developing states, this central tension of climate change between lives and livelihoods is reflected in their response to the coronavirus pandemic. To prevent the spread of the virus and save lives, they have closed their borders and therefore their tourism-driven economies have been ravaged in the past 18 months.
Mauritius is not entirely dependent on tourism, but this sector represents a significant part of its foreign income, said the permanent representative to the United Nations for the small island in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. Its borders fully reopened in October, and Jagdish Koonjul said Mauritius hopes to attract 650,000 tourists by next summer.
Mauritius, Koonjul said, is “very lucky” compared to other countries in the bloc because of its economic diversification, relatively high land and coral reefs that prevent erosion.
But it is not immune to climate change. Mauritius and other small island developing states are looking to larger and more industrialized countries to make an ambitious pledge at the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Glasgow.
“We are missing this train now, and we are doomed,” Koonjul said.
The dozens of speeches made this year at the United Nations General Assembly tended to follow a rubric. They started with jokes to the President of the General Assembly, then went on to a long list of topics: maybe a favorite topic, but certainly conflict, coronavirus and climate change. The rhetoric was often mixed, but the speeches of leaders of small island developing states – with the most to lose in the near future – stood out with startling eloquence echoing Koonjul.
“Will Tuvalu remain a UN member state if it is finally overwhelmed?” Who will help us? Kausea Natano, the Prime Minister of the Pacific Ocean country, asked on Saturday.
States had specific demands, including immediate and significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, debt restructuring and financial assistance – especially given the impact of the coronavirus on their tourism-dependent economies.
“Industrialized countries have an obligation to help the states most affected by climate change because they created a problem in the first place,” Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said on Saturday in Caribbean Sea.
On the same day, the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, called the actions of the great powers so far “pious words and marginal tinkering”.
“With that, humanity is at midnight. Can we rise to the challenge? We may not live to find the answer if the habit continues, ”said the Prime Minister of the Caribbean nation.
Saving the economic fate of these countries is complex. Baptiste says there is no comprehensive policy to retrain people with vulnerable livelihoods into new occupations.
And Gössling argues that while they are not the culprits of global warming, small island developing states do not directly face the friction between climate change prevention measures and their reliance on tourism.
“I also think that SIDS never made a serious effort to consider different economic sectors as well, because very often it was very obvious that you would focus on tourism, develop for tourism and you by definition then would almost become dependent on tourism, ”he said. “And I think the strange thing – this conflict has never been vocalized by SIDS.”
What has been vocalized is a clear call for substantive action by rich and developed countries. Now that the ramifications of climate change have reached countries that have long claimed it didn’t exist, small island developing states are hoping the message is finally getting across.
The poet John Donne wrote that “no man is an island in his own right.” In the same vein, Solih recalled the point that island nations have been making for years: “There is no guarantee of survival for a nation in a world where the Maldives cease to exist. “
Associated Press reporter Nick Perry contributed to this report from Wellington, New Zealand.