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For the Pacific, the Cancún Climate Summit is about Survival

For us in the Pacific, the Cancún climate summit is about survival

Marcus Stephen, President of the island of Nauru, says the predicament facing the Pacific's low-lying states is shared the world over

Last year, heads of state from the world's largest economies gathered at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen to show solidarity with their counterparts from smaller, more vulnerable countries in the face of the largest environmental crisis in history. The failure of the negotiations to produce a legally binding treaty, coupled with shifting domestic politics, have kept the same leaders away from this year's meeting in Cancún, lest they be associated with another breakdown in talks or accused of not putting their own country's problems first.

But while climate change may have become politically inconvenient in the past year for some, the threat it poses to the world is no less real. And for few people is the danger so great as it is for the citizens of Pacific island nations.

For this reason, several heads of state from our region will personally take part in the Mexico negotiations – to ensure that our interests are fairly represented and to remind the world that, for us, action on climate change is not simply a matter of politics, but of survival.

The countries in our region are spread across thousands of square miles in the Pacific and include hundreds of small islands and coral atolls. The region is home to more than 8 million people, 600 distinct languages, and some of the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems in the world.

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As with other small island states, our low-lying terrain, remote geography, vulnerability to storms, and dependence on natural resources have made the impacts of climate change all the more severe.

For example, the combination of rising seas and intensifying weather events has led to coastal erosion and the intrusion of saltwater into agricultural land and our increasingly scarce fresh water supplies. At sea, ocean acidification and coral bleaching have degraded fisheries and threaten our tourism economy.

Even more concerning, a steady rise in sea level has put some of our members' islands at risk of complete inundation. Hundreds of people from Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and other parts of our region have already been forcefully displaced due to climate-related impacts, making them among the world's first climate refugees and raising a number of previously unimaginable questions: If our homes are swallowed by the sea, where would we go? What country will we belong too? Who will own our fish and undersea resources?

These dilemmas are by no means isolated to the Pacific. New research has shown that the rapid loss of ice sheets could contribute to an increase in sea level of more than a meter, which would put New York, London, Shanghai and many other coastal cities at risk of severe flooding. The International Organisation for Migration has said that rising seas could lead to as many as 200 million climate-impact related refugees worldwide by 2050.

So what can we achieve in Cancún? In spite of the low expectations that have been set for the meeting, we can still take a step toward reaching an agreement that helps protect millions of people in low-lying countries if progress is made in the following areas.

First, governments must preserve the international character of climate change policymaking. At Copenhagen, some governments began lobbying for a system that would replace an internationally binding agreement with a patchwork of domestic regulations and enforcement regimes. Such a proposal would disenfranchise the voices of millions of people most at risk from climate change and undermine the multilateral approach that is the cornerstone of international relations.

Second, the emission reduction targets proposed at Copenhagen are not nearly sufficient to prevent severe climate impacts to low-lying and coastal areas. We have joined other island states and vulnerable countries throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas in calling for emission reductions designed to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees, the level scientists say is needed to significantly reduce the risk to our islands and surrounding reefs and atolls.

Third, the international community should use this opportunity to establish readily accessible sources of funding specifically dedicated to help vulnerable communities such as ours adapt to the unavoidable consequences of climate change. It is critical that this support be additional to previous commitments to international development aid and administered according to the highest standards of fairness and transparency.

The predicament facing the Pacific's low-lying states, though seemingly far removed from the world's largest cities and capitals, is in fact just the earliest manifestation of a crisis shared the world over. A failure to do what is necessary to protect us now will eventually doom all of humanity to a similar fate.


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