COP21: The last chance for Small Island Developing States

Tuvalu. Image credit: Erik van Sebille

Grantham Lecturer Dr Erik van Sebille reports back from the second day of the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris.

For a group of countries that represent such a tiny fraction of the world’s population, the Small Island Developing States have stirred up a lot of discussion at COP21 in Paris over the last few days. As some of the first countries to feel the full blown impacts of climate change first hand, time is ticking and they are frustrated by the pace of the negotiations.

There are 52 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) dotted across the world, and while they are quite diverse in terms of development, what they all share is their deep vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Sea level rise, ocean acidification and changes in rainfall patterns are already hitting these countries hard, with no signs of abating in decades to come

Earlier this week, President Obama met with some of the leaders of the group of countries, pledging to support the SIDS and calling for an ambitious and transparent climate agreement. But that is not enough for the SIDS: they are very vocal here in Paris in urging world leaders to lower the target for the maximum allowed global temperature rise from 2°C to 1.5°C. And since we have already reached 1°C of warming, this essentially means a halving of the future warming goal.

While it is quite unlikely that the COP21 meeting will secure this lower target temperature, it is easy to see why the SIDS want this. Their culture, food security and livelihoods depend on it.

Tuvalu, the pancake country

Two years ago, I travelled to Tuvalu to report on the effects of climate change there for a documentary for the Weather Channel (below). What I saw there was shocking. Let me try and describe it.

The highest point in the whole of Tuvalu is less than 3 metres above sea level. Most of the country is not more than a metre above sea level. During high tides, the water percolates through the ground, forming puddles of seawater on the streets.

The rising sea level shrinks the thin freshwater lens on which the Tuvaluans depend for drinking water and irrigation. This means that the country will become uninhabitable well before it goes underwater.

Food security as a key issue

While attending the COP21 meeting this week, I heard that for the citizens of the SIDS, as well as many other poor communities across the globe, the most direct and pressing impact of climate change is food security. In a changing world, it is exceedingly difficult to find the food sources the people rely on.

The mayor of the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands told how the fishermen of his island have difficulty going out to sea to fish, because the winds and currents have changed dramatically. The fish have gone. My team at Imperial College London and I are researching how climate change will continue to amplify these ecosystem shifts.

Rising sea levels are affecting farming in Tuvalu. Image credit: Erik van Sebille
Rising sea levels are affecting farming in Tuvalu. Image credit: Erik van Sebille

The demise of traditional food sources means the citizens of the Small Island Nations depend increasingly on imported food. This is mostly cheap, frozen sugary fast food, and as a result Tuvalu has a worryingly high obesity rate. One of the Tuvalu elders told me that the kids cannot climb the coconut tress anymore, because they are too fat.

Leading the way on renewables

The leaders and climate negotiators of the Small Island Nations won’t stand for this any longer. In a bold move they pledged this week to shift their energy supply to rely on 100% renewables by 2050. Only if the rest of the world follows suit will these countries have any future.


Find out more

How does our changing climate affect sea level? Read our briefing note


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