Copenhagen: Maldives, Tuvalu, small island nations lead fight for real action on climate

President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed: ``You can't negotiate with physics!''.

December 15, 2009 -- Klimaforum09 -- The president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, stressed the power of people to take action on climate change, when he spoke to a packed audience at Klimaforum09, the alternative climate summit in Copenhagen, on December 14.

“The social movements have the power to save the planet from the effects of climate change. My message to you is to continue the process of movement building after the conference”, the president said.

Mohamed Nasheed used his own personal story to illustrate the point. A few years ago he was in prison because of his work as a human rights activists, but upon his release he became the first democratic elected president of the island nation acutely threatened by the rising sea levels.

“We had no power, but our cause”, Nasheed explained, before he went on to promise to turn his country into the first CO2 neutral society in the world in just ten years' time. “Let us make the goal of reaching 350 parts per million. We believe that if the Maldives can become carbon neutral so can larger countries.”

1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius? Life or death for Tuvalu?

By Jean-Pascal van Ypersele

December 14, 2009 -- International Action on Global Warming -- Ian Fry, the delegate from Tuvalu (a small island state in the Pacific Ocean), his voice broken by emotion, pleaded in the COP15 plenary room on December 12 for his country’s proposal for a legally binding agreement limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

“The fate of my country lies in your hands”, he said. The plenary was moved by his words. Every normal human being had to be. At least I was. Is climate science providing a basis for this emotion? Should the world accept a 2°C rise, a value which seems gaining ground, or is 1.5°C, now advocated by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and many developing countries, a better target? Does the IPCC provide useful information on this question?

We all know (at least those who understand the scientific methods) that the burning of massive quantities of fossil fuels has destabilised the carbon cycle, since we are emitting every year approximately 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide more than what ecosystems and oceans can absorb. These contribute to thickening the layer of heat-trapping gases around the Earth, and warm its climate. The average warming over the last 100 years is of the order of 0.8°C, and has been called “unequivocal” by IPCC in its last report ( After assessing hundreds of articles, the IPCC concluded that most of the observed increase in global temperatures since 1950 is very likely due to the increase in human greenhouse gas concentrations. If emissions continue unabated, global temperatures are likely to rise between 1.6 and 6.9°C above pre-industrial levels before the end of this century (except noted otherwise, all warming or sea-level increase values given below will be expressed with respect to the pre-industrial values.)

The physics behind this are extremely solid, and those who are not convinced either have not read the IPCC reports in good faith, or are blinded by the short-term interests they defend.

Climate warming over the last three decades has likely already had a discernible influence on many physical and biological systems. It is likely that the summer 2003 European heat wave (70,000 additional deaths over the summer) and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were both intensified to some extent by warming. But these are nothing compared to the impacts in store. In the future, human health, many ecosystems (both terrestrial and marine), water resources, agriculture and low-lying coastal systems are likely to be especially affected by climate change. This is true also for small islands, where there is high exposure of population and infrastructure to sea level rise.

The UN Framework Climate Convention, adopted in 1992, states in its Article 2 that its ultimate objective is to "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. The first policymakers who gave a quantitative interpretation to this article were the European Council of Ministers, who decided, in June 1996 that, in order to avoid this “dangerous interference”, we should never allow a global warming that exeeds 2°C above pre-industrial. This was decided 13 years ago, on the basis of the second IPCC Assessment Report.

The Third IPCC Report, published in 2001, contained the “burning embers” diagram synthesising the severity of risk associated with five “reasons for concern” (RFC) in function of the global temperature increase, using a colour scheme easy to understand: a graduation from white (low risk) to yellow (significant risk) to red (severe risk). In retrospect, it kind of justified the political choice made by the EU leaders in 1996: the transition between the yellow (significant risk) and red (severe risk) zones was located for the first two RFCs around 2°C (about 1.5°C above the 1990 temperature).

The last IPCC report (2007) contained an updated assessment of these RFCs, and an updated diagram was published in 2009 (look for Smith et al. on or on This diagram clearly shows that the red zones are entered in at a lower warming threshold than in the 2001 version for each RFC. The downward movement is by at least 0.5°C. In other words, the 2°C threshold that could be considered somewhat “safe” on the basis of the 2001 report urgently needs a political update. My guess is that if the same European ministers who decided 13 years ago that the target ought to be 2°C would look at the evidence in the last IPCC report, they would have to conclude that a lower target, probably 1.5°C, is warranted.

Please note that when I say this, I am not policy-prescriptive, I only highlight the evolution of knowledge that has taken place over the past 13 years, and suggest that using the same criteria they used in 1996, those ministers would likely pick a lower target. I hope this is policy relevant.

Another way to look at the same issue, to understand the 1.5 versus 2°C debate, is to check what the IPCC writes about sea-level changes for a 2°C warming. For a 2 to 2.4°C warming, the last IPCC report gives a sea-level increase at equilibrium of the order of 0.4–1.4 metres above the pre-industrial level for water thermal expansion only, but did not give a total estimate. A total number should take into account, in addition to water expansion, the melting of glaciers and small ice caps, and more important, the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Glaciers and small ice caps contain the equivalent of 15 to 37 cm of sea-level increase, and have started to melt already. Greenland represents 7 metres and Antarctica 56 metres of sea-level rise. Given that the threshold for the long-term viability of the Greenland ice sheet has been assessed to be between 1.9 and 4.6°C global warming, and noting the uncertainty about the long-term sea level contribution from Antarctica (Oppenheimer and Alley have suggested in 2005 that a sustained global warming of 2.5°C would be a threshold beyond which there would be a commitment to a large sea level contribution from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, but there is no consensus on this value), one can easily understand why Tuvalu and AOSIS are concerned -- 2°C means ultimately at least 40 cm from thermal expansion, plus at (the very) least 10 cm from the melting of glaciers, plus potentially 7 metres from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, plus some contribution from Antarctica!

Tuvalu’s highest point, Ian Fry told the plenary, is less than 4 metres, with its entire population living at less than 2 metres above sea level.

One can therefore understand why choosing 1.5 or 2°C for the ultimate goal matters for Tuvalu, and why he was crying Saturday morning, preparing his intervention for the COP plenary.

There are many other reasons why a 2°C world might not be so safe after all. The last IPCC report also contains these sentences, which I find terrible: “Approximately 20 to 30% of [plant and animal] species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if warming exceeds 2 to 3°C”. Those species don’t have a Ian Fry to speak on their behalf, but wouldn’t the fate of our human species be better, wherever we live, if these other species, which provide so many ecosystem services, were allowed to survive?

I rediscovered an old book the other day. It is the report written by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos in preparation of the 1972 UN conference on the environment in Stockholm. It contained these visionary sentences: “The increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the air means that, at the present rates of use, the earth’s temperature could rise by 0.5°C by the year 2000.” (Well, this is precisely what happened.) And: “We [need to] wonder whether the sum of all likely fossil fuel demands in the early decades of the [21st] century might not greatly increase the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere and by doing so bring up average surface temperature uncomfortably close to that rise of 2°C which might set in motion the long-term warming-up of the planet.”

So, the science disputed by some today was already so clear 37 years ago!

We should remember the title of that visionary 1972 report (and revisit the numbers it contains, on the basis of the latest science): “Only one Earth”.

[Jean-Pascal van Ypersele is a professor of climatology and environmental sciences at the Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium) and IPCC vice-chairperson.]

Proposal of the Alliance of Small Island States for the survival of the Kyoto Protocol

AOSIS Proposal for KP Survival and New en Protocol - Final

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 12/18/2009 - 13:40


Voices from Small Island States: Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, a Tuvaluan Delegate and a Youth Activist from the Solomon Islands

December 17, 2009 -- Democracy Now! -- “For us, this is more than just another meeting,” said President Nasheed. “This is a matter of life and death.” Eighty percent of the Maldives lies three feet or less above sea level. The predicted rise in sea level caused by global warming could wipe the country off the map. The islands of Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands face a similar crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: The President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, has been one of the most outspoken leaders to call attention to the dire consequences of climate change. Eighty percent of the Maldives lies three feet or less above sea level. The predicted rise in sea level caused by global warming could wipe the country off the map.

President Nasheed addressed the UN climate summit on Wednesday.

    PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: Developed countries created the climate crisis. Developing countries must not turn into a calamity. Therefore, I invite the leaders of big developing countries to recognize their responsibilities. I urge them to come forward at Copenhagen with quantifiable and verifiable actions to reduce emissions 30 percent below business as usual by 2020.

    Let me be plain. We urgently need to move forward. Giving us intensity targets that are close to business as usual is not acceptable at this stage.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that you should not ask others to do something you are not prepared to do yourself. The Maldives has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020.

    And I have been hugely encouraged by the steps already taken by least developed countries and small island states to begin getting their economies green. At the recent Climate Vulnerable Forum in Male, eleven states pledged to raise their ambitions in leading the world towards carbon neutrality. This is an enormous opportunity to reduce future emissions before fossil fuel infrastructure is built. But it cannot be done without the financial support from rich countries. I say to the industrialized world, you have the finances and much of the technology; please help us go green.

    When we say this, please bear in mind that climate change negotiations have nothing, nothing at all, to do with money. Maldives is a very small state. We have never received aid from European Union countries. Whatever we have been able to do, we have been able to do with our friends and neighbors, and we have been able to fend for ourselves. Climate change negotiations have, for me and for our country, everything to do with our grandchildren. I have two daughters. I want to see grandchildren. If we continue business as usual, we will not be able to see our grandchildren. To assume that climate change has anything to do with money, in my mind, is the height of arrogance.

    I am also encouraged by regional climate initiatives in places like California and Quebec, where true leadership is being shown. Outside the rim of the nation state, their standards, their ambitions are much, much higher than the center. Climate change, I do understand, is an issue that transcends nationality, that trandscends the nation state. And what we have on offer from the centers, from heads of states, falls far shorter than what we are seeing from sub-regions or from provinces and from states.

    Ladies and gentlemen, Kyoto divided the world. It divided us between rich and poor, developed and developing, Annex I and Annex II. Our task now is to unite the world behind the shared vision of low carbon growth. The Maldives is trying to lead the way. I call upon every country in this room to join us, not just for the sake of the Maldives, but for the sake of the entire planet. If we are not able to seize this opportunity, and if we are not able to come to an understanding during the course of next forty-eight hours, I’m afraid we might very well be doomed. I hope that that is not what we are contemplating. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: The President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, speaking here in Copenhagen, addressing the UN climate summit on Wednesday. Yes, Mohamed Nasheed, the President, held an underwater news conference of his entire cabinet a few weeks ago. Everyone was there except for a few members who didn’t know how to scuba dive.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. It’s Climate Countdown.

At a news conference earlier today, the Prime Minister of the island nation of Tuvalu issued an urgent call to ensure that global temperatures do not rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius. Prime Minister Ielemia also highlighted the immense pressure that small island states are coming under to accept a weak deal. He said, quote, "Under the last few days we have seen considerable pressure to accept a deal based around two degrees limit. We have not yielded to this pressure because our future is not negotiable.” He highlighted pressure from Australia, in particular.

For more, I’m joined now by the negotiator for Tuvalu, Taukiei Kitala.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! You’ve just come out of that news conference. Can you talk about, first, what does global warming mean for your country? And locate it for our listeners and viewers in the United States and around the world who may not have even heard of Tuvalu.

TAUKIEI KITALA: Global warming in Tuvalu, it’s really an issue. When we look at things that are happening right now in Tuvalu, in regards to sea level rise and also really high tides—we experience high tides during the months of February and March—we have been living with a lot of doubts, that the future looks really, really doubtful, the future of Tuvalu.

And the Prime Minister actually really stressed out that we are not here in Copenhagen to strike a deal that will jeopardize our survival. But it seems that whatever that has been happening around the corridors or behind the scenes has created a lot of unease, that now we question our survival.

Will Copenhagen come up with a real deal? Will Copenhagen provide assurance that Tuvalu will have a good future? We might be talking about looking—we might be looking at things at the moment, you know, that happening at the moment. The question, the big question, is always put forward by Tuvaluans, is what is going to happen in the future? We’re worried about our next generation or our future generations. The issue here is that—whether our kids will ever enjoy the beautiful sands and the millions of corals that we have.

AMY GOODMAN: How large is the population of Tuvalu?

TAUKIEI KITALA: Tuvalu, it’s just over 10,000 people in total. And our land is so narrow. It’s just land, strips of land, that goes—runs long as up to five to six kilometers long, and it gets to about a kilometer wide. That’s the widest point of the island. But it gets really narrow at some points that go up to only five meters. That’s how narrow Tuvalu looks like.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just arrived here and held a news conference, is saying that, though being somewhat vague about it, countries are getting, in the way of a deal, that the US is laying something on the table, $100 billion to begin in 2020 from the US and other countries—when asked by a Japanese journalist how much would the US commit, she wasn’t clear—but only if a deal is arrived at by tomorrow. Otherwise, it’s off the table. Finally, your message to the US government on what you want to see happen here?

TAUKIEI KITALA: Well, our message was clear, which was relayed by our prime minister: we want 1.5 degrees, not more than 1.5.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit for people in the United States.

TAUKIEI KITALA: OK. Now, the deal that the US would like to see, I think what they really want to see, it’s like—they would like countries like Tuvalu, small island states and less developed countries, to strike a deal on a two degree, which we don’t want.

AMY GOODMAN: What would it mean?

TAUKIEI KITALA: It means—it means a lot to us in Tuvalu. Even at the 1.5, it is really critical for us. If we go beyond 1.5, we’re just—it’s just a matter of life and death for us. And putting money on the table will not solve anything, will not guarantee our survival. That’s not a question.

AMY GOODMAN: Taukiei Kitala, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a Tuvalu delegate, climate delegate, here in Copenhagen, as we end this segment with a young woman I met the other night. She was one of the youth delegates here. She was from another small island nation. She was from the Solomon Islands, had traveled for many, many hours to get to Copenhagen. And she, like many of the youth, were ultimately being kicked out of the Bella Center.

    MAYLIN SESE: My name is Maylin Sese, and I am from Solomon Islands. I am twenty-three. And I am with Pacific Survival, Project Pacific Survival. It is a theme that we are here to raise our voices on survival, on Pacific survival.

    And I’m here in COP15 because many people don’t believe about climate change, but I’m here, in person, to tell people, tell the world, the world leaders, that climate change is definitely, absolutely a real issue in my place. I have—climate change has been visible in my place. We have shorelines washed. We have our lands being affected by climate change. It affects the food crops by the heat of the sun and unpredictable weather. And we also have increasing sea level rise, that it causes losing of our island. And it is a big issue, when it comes to relocation, when it comes to economy, when it comes to adaptation to another place. It is a problem to us. So I am here. I am here to express and to show to the world how far I came is how deep my concern is about climate.

    And my only hope is if the world leaders could show their kindness, their legitimate kindness, legitimate kindness, to youths, to show their concern to youths like me, to youths like me, and count my coming to this place, that far, and accept to sign this deal, make it, seal the deal, make it legally signed, so that it would be a hope. And to me, it would be a greatest souvenir I ever have in my life, because it’s my future, and it is a hope that I will take with me all my life. And it would be a hope for my children and my children’s children. With that, thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Climate Countdown, Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

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