By Ed Diokno
It’s a matter of degrees. A half-degree may sound small, but it could spell the difference between the elimination or survival of island nations most threatened by rising sea levels.
The final agreement among the 195 nations to implement measures to lower the impact of climate change was a significant step, but not the leap forward that some countries feel is necessary. The Conference of Parties (COP21) is an annual meeting of all nations that make up the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. It was the 21st meeting of the countries’ leaders, activists and climate experts in Paris earlier this month.
Among the key provisions of the agreement is the capping of global temperature rise “ to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
The island nations such as the Marshall Islands, Samoa and the Philippines wanted to set 1.5°C as the goal but in order to get the larger countries to agree, the language allowed for some leeway with the understanding that future negotiations would aim to attain that half-degree difference.
Other provisions that are considered significant are the inclusion of human rights as a bedrock principle, the mention of ecosystem integrity, the commitment on financial and technological support, and the inclusion of a Loss and Damage article.
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“The bottom line is this,” said Obama. “The nations that are represented by the leaders who are here today, they’re not the most populous nations. They don’t have big armies. May not have the most influence in international organizations. But as Prime Minister O’Neill indicated from Papua New Guinea, they have a right to the dignity and sense of place and continuity of culture that everybody else does. And their voice is vital in making sure that the kind of agreement that emerges here in Paris is not just serving the interests of the most powerful, but is serving the interests of the most vulnerable, as well.”And the United States intends to stand with them as a partner in this process.”
Indeed, the dignity and preservation of the world’s vulnerable islands took on a leading role at the talks with the call for a 1.5 degree goal taking center stage.
The temperature goal is widely viewed as a much safer limit, not just for islands, but for a world increasingly experiencing extreme weather events with warming of less than 1 degree above pre-industrial levels today.
Organizers of the Paris conference will be the first to admit the commitments made by nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be insufficient to prevent global warming from exceeding the 2°C warming threshold, let alone 1.5°C. For that reason, the agreement calls for nations to revisit their commitments every five years, with the expectation that national goals will be made increasingly ambitious.
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Marshall Islands rise only to a height of 6 feet above sea level. High tide or stormy seas flood the streets of its capital and eat away at the island beaches. The government has plans in place to evacuate all its people, either to nearby island nations such as Fiji where they would buy land for their 57,000 people or emigrate to the United States. It would be the disappearance of the country, the extinction of a people and the demise of their culture and heritage.
“As an island boy, (Obama) understands the unique challenges we face,”said Marshall Islands President Christopher J. Loeak after the meeting. “The meeting was a chance to talk, at a very personal level, about how vulnerable we are to climate impacts and that we all need to work together to tackle what is now the gravest risk to humanity.”
“Everything I know — and everyone I love — is in the hands of all of us gathered here in Paris,” said Loeak. “This is the most important trip of my life. I need to be able to return to my people and say that we joined a Paris agreement that gives us hope and a pathway to survival.”
“I think it was a much better and a much more ambitious agreement than we had expected going into Paris,” said Saleemul Huq, a long-time advisor to some of the world’s poorest countries at COP21. “The biggest thing is that we have all countries working together to fight the problem, not just some.
(Ed Diokno writes a blog : Views From The Edge: news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.)