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IHDP: No time for pessimism, says small islands leader

Dessima_Williams-2900.jpgA group of ambassadors from the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) stopped by the IHDP conference yesterday and held a panel discussion on dealing with the leading edge of dangerous climate change. For AOSIS countries that stand to be swallowed by rising seas or devastated by droughts and storms, their continued existence is on the line in this year’s climate negotiations. At the UN meeting here in Bonn in March, the group issued a statement saying, “The survival of the small island states should be the benchmark for the success of the Copenhagen agreement.” I nabbed AOSIS chair Dessima Williams of Grenada for a quick interview on the island states’ agenda.

What kind of agreement is needed for small island states to survive?


Most of the major players think that two degrees of warming is tolerable. We’re saying we’ve got to put the brakes on stronger and faster. We call for limiting the long-term temperature rise to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to no more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent, and for major emitters to reduce emissions by about 45% by 2020 and 95% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. Germany has already said that they are willing to come down 40% by 2020. What they’re using to do that is a renewable energy mix – which others could use, if they are willing.

But wider agreement on an aggressive target is considered very difficult. Do you think you’re facing long odds?

We are only at the start of the negotiations. It’s not time to give in to pessimism; it’s time to be ambitious. And we have no choice but to thrust at a very ambitious level, because of what our [impacts] scenarios show. What will be helpful in making our case is reports of two kinds. One is evidence that we could reach the lower targets being proposed, and I think we’re beginning to see that. The other is reports that reveal the urgency and scale of the problem so that we cannot be nonchalant. There our local research centres are critical.

What’s coming out of the local research centres?

One initiative is the Caribbean Climate Change Centre, which conducts research and pilot projects. There’s a similar research centre in Samoa for the Pacific area. And I would like to see these centres higher on the scientific agenda. They’re rigorous and thorough, and they need access to publications that are close to the negotiations. The North sometimes acts as if it is the only centre of knowledge, but science doesn’t belong to anyone – research happens in all regions of the world.

The Maldives has announced plans to purchase outside land where its people can migrate when their homeland becomes uninhabitable. Is that an option for other small island states?

In Grenada, we have a couple of fishing villages that were badly damaged in the hurricanes [of 2004 and 2005]. The government sought to relocate them, but the people don’t want to move. They’ve got all their memories, their tradition and their heritage there. So by the time a state comes to that kind of proposal, it’s pretty desperate. It also requires massive amounts of funds to create whole new communities, which is where the [UN’s] Adaptation Fund would have to come in. And there’s another factor too: we may not have time for an orderly relocation of climate change refugees. In the case of a major event, people will just take their families and flee.

The Maldives are a member of AOSIS, and we are in sympathy with them, naturally. But we don’t want this to be the pattern when we know that it can be avoided.

Anna Barnett

Photo: Dessima Williams / copyright 2009, Mike Le Gray

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