Island nations mustn’t pay the price for Trump’s stance on climate change

Tropical caribbean island in open oceanThis post is by Matthew Perks, CEO of New Energy Events LLC, the organisers of the annual Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum (CREF). which will take place in Miami from 18-20 October, 2017.

A little over a month ago, on 1 June 2017, the day that Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, the New York Times speculated that the impact of the withdrawal would be determined by the global response to the decision. Would countries double down on their efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions? Or would the agreement begin to fray at the seams? One day later, Christiana Figueres, who led the negotiation of the treaty, ventured on to Twitter to say, “Thank you, Trump. You have provoked an unparalleled wave of support for Paris and determined resolve on climate action. Deeply grateful.”

But what about the money?
That was five weeks ago. What seemed at the time premature now seems prescient. In the US, the reaction to the withdrawal from many cities and states has been swift, resolute and meaningful. Only days after the announcement, Hawaii became the first state to enact measures to adopt sections of the Paris Agreement into state law. While some states have remained silent, if the US states that have come out in support of the agreement were a country they would comprise one of the world’s largest economies.

Of course it’s one thing to support measures to reduce emissions, another to put your money where your mouth is. In 2015 the US pledged US$3 billion to the Global Climate Fund (GCF); US$1 billion has made it into the fund but it seems improbable that it will see the balance. Of all the states and cities that have come forward, few have acknowledged the need to honour the financial commitments which comprised such a vital component of the agreement.

Why does it matter?
After Trump announced the US withdrawal, I spoke with James Fletcher, the former minister responsible for energy policy in St Lucia and a leading voice at the Paris talks representing the interests of island nations. He was, like Figueres, encouraged by the reaction to the pronouncement but deeply concerned about the implications for the flow of funding to critical adaptation projects across the Caribbean and to islands worldwide.

The loose affiliation of island nations in Paris rallied around a cry of “1.5 to stay alive”, or in other words: limit global warming to 1.5oC or we go under. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that even a small rise in sea levels will have an outsize and catastrophic impact on islands, many of which – particularly in the Pacific – barely emerge out of the ocean as it is.

Just how much will sea levels rise? One foot by 2040 if the earth heats two degrees? More? Less? Research published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences throws some frightening numbers around but, let’s face it, the numbers are hard to predict. If the predictions fluctuate wildly, the underlying findings are horrifyingly consistent: even if we better targets agreed upon in Paris and limit warming to 1.5oC, sea levels are gong to rise. The question, then, is not “is it coming”, it’s how do we hold back the waters, and where on earth are we going to find the funds to keep the islands above the waves?

The responsibility of developed nations
From that most vital of island assets – the beach – to water, transportation and energy infrastructure there is almost no component of island existence which isn’t at risk. Undoubtedly, the private sector will have to shoulder some of the burden and many businesses in the region – from hotel chains to power utility companies – are already earmarking investments and building resiliency into their long term business models.

It is on the public purse, though, that the brunt will fall. Coastlines need defending, urban infrastructure needs protecting, water resources need safeguarding.

Funds from the GCF and other sources have begun to flow to island nations but largely to programmes which help governments identify the problem and explore – and cost – the solutions. This is vital stuff, but more vital is to start building. Islands worldwide urgently need to build a figurative sea wall. That sea wall comes with a price tag which is, not to put too fine a point on it, beyond the means of most island nations.

I, like others, have been hugely encouraged to see a rejuvenated commitment to the roadmap laid out in the Paris Agreement. But let’s keep our eye on the ball and on the money. Developed nations got island nations into this mess; now they need to step up to help get them out.

 

 

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