ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 16
Columns - Inside the glass house  

Clash over climate change as small countries approach expiry date

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK--- As the United Nations gets ready for a high-level summit on climate change, there is a cry for help from the Pacific island state of Tuvalu which is in danger of vanishing from the face of the earth because of global warming and sea-level rise. Tavau Teii, the Deputy Prime Minister of the (literally) sinking nation, said last week that one study had predicted that in 30 to 50 years time, Tuvalu will be swallowed by the ocean, along with some 10,000 of its inhabitants.

Men sleep in the shade from trees during their lunch break as a woman cycles past them, Monday, Sept. 10, 2007 in Beijing. Although Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to the climate-change pact recently made at the APEC summit in Sydney, he argued that developing nations like China have a lesser role to play. Hu said rich countries have polluted for longer and thus must take the lead in cutting emissions and providing money and technology to help developing countries clean up. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

"We keep thinking the time will never come," he was quoted as saying, "The alternative is to turn ourselves into fish and live under water."

And closer home, we have a similar plight facing the Maldives. When the President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, addressed a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of state in Kuala Lumpur many moons ago, he said that if his tiny island nation is asked to host the same conference in the next couple of decades, chances were the world's leaders will have to meet at the bottom of the ocean.

As a result of global warming and a projected sea level rise, the country of 369,000 people is expected to perish and sink into depths of the Indian Ocean. Fathulla Jameel, the sharp-witted former Foreign Minister of the Maldives, put it even more bluntly: "We are like a can of tuna fish. We come with an expiry date."

Like Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and several other low lying nation states, the Maldives is apparently caught between an unfriendly devil and a deep blue ocean. The tragedy of small island nations is that countries such as the Maldives and Tuvalu had contributed absolutely nothing to the degradation of the world's environment. But still they are asked to pay the penalty for the environmental crimes of others.

The effects of global warming-- such as sea-level rise, beach erosion, coral bleaching, increasing stress on coastal ecosystems, salinization of freshwater aquifers and damage to infrastructure from tropical storms-- are threatening to jeopardize the viability and the long-term sustainability of these island nations.

As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week climate change is "one of the most complex, multi-faceted and serious threats the world faces. As a result primarily of human-caused emissions, our climate is changing" causing droughts, floods and heat waves sparking crop failures, conflicts and human suffering.

In 2007 alone, he said, human activity will cause more than 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere. Under the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005, 36 industrial countries committed to reducing their emissions in line with agreed targets by 2012. But most of the targets are still far off the mark.

With a rise in environmental degradation worldwide, the UN is hosting a summit on climate change on September 24. The primary objective of the meeting is to provide a higher political profile for the environmental threat facing the world at large. At the same time, the US has invited 20 of "the world's largest polluting countries" to a summit in Washington DC September 27-28. But not everyone is happy with the competing summits on climate change during the same week in September.

"I believe the U.S. move is a very wrong move because it will undermine the multilateral process (which resulted in the 2005 Kyoto Protocol governing climate change)," said Sunita Narain, one of the world's most active environmentalists, and director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. "I don't believe that the United States, the world's largest polluter, which has been a renegade nation, has the right to call such a meeting. They have no leadership role in this game," she said.

Although most of the countries invited to the US summit are industrial nations, US President George Bush has also extended his invitation to China and India, described as two of the world's largest polluters.

Narain said: "I have made it very clear that the Indian government should not go to it because then you are giving credibility to a process that is immoral, wrong and illegitimate." Asked if India is going to participate, she said: "Who can refuse an invitation from the United States?. Come on. That's ok. We are a democracy and I have the right to tell my government that I don't agree."

She also said that climate change never had a high profile because of the reluctance of the US to put it on the international agenda. Even during the G8 summit meetings (of industrial nations) over the last few years, she said, Washington made it very clear to the host country that "if you mention the "C" word, we will not come."

The Washington summit has been dubbed a "Meeting of Major Economies on Energy Security and Climate Change" while the U.N. meeting is officially titled "The Future in our Hands: Addressing the Leadership Challenge of Climate Change."

As of last week, 44 heads of state and 26 heads of government (out of a total U.N. membership of 192) have been listed to speak at the United Nations. Sri Lanka is one of the countries on the list.

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