Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Voice of islanders drowned out

Islands Business: Last month, some 10,000 delegates comprising officials, environmental activists, media persons and others from as many as 190 countries converged on Bali, Indonesia, for two weeks of talks and deliberations organised by the United Nations.

The effects of sea level rise stare islanders in the face. Pic: Dev Nadkarni
What primarily brought them together is the volume of recent multi-disciplinary research that has come to the conclusion that the technology to put the brakes on global warming—at least that caused by human activity—exists, and that unless all countries come together to address it urgently, the problem will only get worse.

The importance of this research is amply underscored by the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of the initiatives that was responsible for conducting some of the major studies was awarded the Nobel Prize last year.

One of the chief aims of the exercise was for the world’s nations to kick-start a new round of negotiations and come up with a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012 and chart out the course beyond on the basis of new research on carbon emissions and the effect industry has on climate change.

But at the end of the two-week conference the big question of bringing America, the world’s biggest polluter, to the negotiating table remained a chimera. At the conference, former Vice President and global environment campaigner Al Gore was scathing in his criticism of his country, which now remains the only developed one that has not signed the Kyoto Protocol in a decade of its existence. The only other developed nation that had refrained from signing all these years, Australia, ratified it on the eve of the conference as part of the newly elected Kevin Rudd-led Labour Administration’s election promise.

The Bush Administration’s argument so far has been that emission curbs specified by Kyoto would impact negatively on its industry and therefore its economy. It has also been skeptical on the basis on which the Kyoto Protocol was devised bout a decade ago.

But mounting new scientific evidence that links human industrial activity to climate change made the world’s solo superpower show willingness to work with the rest of the world and has proposed its own climate change summit in Hawaii early this year which it expects other developed nations particularly from the European Union to attend.

As the climate change conference concluded, arguments still remained over its final declaration. America’s continued recalcitrance put it at odds with the European Union which then threatened to boycott the United States’ Hawaii conference.

The United States objected to definite targets of between 25 to 40 percent cut in emissions for developed countries proposed by the European Union that would form the basis of the new negotiations over the next few years as Kyoto draws to a close. Given the volume of pollution the American economy puts out into the atmosphere each year, any initiative that is taken without its participation is bound to prove fruitless. At the end of the conference there were hardly any indications that the United States would get involved at the terms being proposed.

One major concern that continues plaguing the emissions control issue is the argument presented by a range of developing countries. A rather amorphous group of nations that includes rapidly growing nations like India and China as well as smaller ones, they continue to adhere to their old argument placing historical culpability on countries that became rich burning fossil fuels when such restrictions never existed. Their argument, as in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, is that placing curbs on their emissions would adversely affect their blitzing growth rate and negatively impact on their development plans to ultimately alleviate widespread poverty amongst their own peoples.

It would be naïve to expect 190 countries to agree on a set of protocols on an issue as important to their individual economic and developmental interests quickly. At the end of the Bali deliberations, however, the mood was cautiously optimistic.

But what is most unfortunate is that in the heat of arguments and counter-arguments presented by the United States, the fast developing nations and the developed nations sympathetic to the climate change issue, the small, feeble voice of the world’s most affected people—the islanders—was all but drowned out.

Climate change and sea level rise stares islanders in the face every day of their lives. For their small populations and governments, the issue has as much to do with the here and now as it has to do with the future. Perhaps the biggest issues facing especially the atoll nations is one of relocation over the next few decades. If, as studies show, the sea levels rise by as much as a metre in the next five or six decades, contingency plans have to be drawn out now—not at the very last moment when the affected people are too close to the calamitous eventuality.

As the larger countries squabble over emission thresholds, these crucial matters facing islanders are not even on the agenda—even if they are, they remain unresolved and one is hard put to find any progress made either at international forums or in general discourse in these countries. Angus Friday of Grenada, Chairman of the Alliance of Small Islands States, told the assembly, “No island should be left behind.” But was anybody listening?

But the islanders have shown the same indomitable spirit that has seen them survive crises through the ages. Their governments and regional organisations continue to come up with their own programmes small and big to raise awareness among the bigger nations both in and out of the international forums—which is indeed heartening to note.

As well as presenting their own studies on climate change affecting their very own local environments, they have embarked on a range of programmes. One such initiative announced recently is a Climate Change Film Festival featuring local people from each of the islands telling their own stories about how climate change and sea level rises are taking a toll on them and their communities.

These strong testimonials must find their way to a wider audience and ultimately to the powerful nations who are engaged in influencing events while charting out the future course of action to control emissions and try to stem the runaway progress of climate change due to human activity

No effort is too small and while their actions are to be recommended, it is these first-hand stories told by islanders that must make the developed world realise that it is their past action that has brought this unfortunate situation on innocent islanders all across the world.

And they owe islanders much more than a new set of protocols which may well be too little too late.

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