Richard Vogel / AP

Canary in a coal mine: Extreme weather, rising seas plague atoll nation

Marshall Islands president issues a call to action ahead of international climate summit next week hosted by the UN

As global leaders gear up to meet at next week’s United Nations Climate Summit in New York, the president of a small Pacific island nation vulnerable to rising seas caused by global warming said the future of his people depends on creating a carbon-free world by 2050.

“Out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, climate change has arrived,” Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak said in a video address to his fellow heads of state. “Our atoll nation stands at the front line in the battle against climate change.”

In the video, Loeak stands in front of a sea wall he built to protect his home and family from rising seas which have already engulfed several of the nation’s atolls — making them disappear forever.

In order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, Loeak said, the world must embrace a carbon-free vision by the middle of the century.

“Without it, no sea wall will be high enough to save my country,” Loeak said.

At the U.N. summit on Tuesday, leaders will announce their plans to tackle climate change. It will be the last chance to confirm carbon cuts before a global climate treaty is signed in Paris at the end of 2015.

“Paris cannot be another Copenhagen. The world has changed too much. The science is more alarming, the impacts more severe, the economics more compelling, and the politics more potent,” Loeak continued.

It’s been nearly five years since world leaders last met to negotiate action to slow the effects of climate change, with few tangible results. Since that meeting in Copenhagen, a series of scientific reports has confirmed increasingly severe impacts if global warming is left unchecked.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in March saying that the effects of climate change were "worse than we had predicted" — a common trope in a series of reports on the effects of global warming released in past months.

Sea levels are expected to rise by at least seven feet by the end of the century, said NASA and University of California researchers after discovering that a massive ice sheet in Western Antarctica was melting at an  "unstoppable" rate.

Other reports have detailed how global warming is making storms stronger and more frequent. The U.N. recently released a faux weather report for 2050 that showed daily highs of over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in much of the United States. While many low-lying areas such as parts of Florida will be under water due to rising seas by mid-century, other regions will suffer from extreme drought beyond the level of emergencies seen in recent years in states like California.

A clarion call

The Marshall Islands, a chain of atolls, stand at barely six feet in elevation above sea level, which means that if world leaders do not commit to significant carbon emissions cuts on Tuesday, the nation will likely disappear by the end of the century.

The beaches where Loeak used to fish as a child are now under the sea, he said, adding that the country has faced unprecedented climate emergencies in past months including severe droughts in the north and the biggest ever king tides in the south that washed over the capital, Majuro.

“This is already a full-blown climate emergency. Some tell us that we should begin planning to leave. But how can we? And why should we?” Loeak said. “Are the world’s polluters asking us to give up our lands, our culture, and our national identity?”

In an effort to spur global action, Loeak last year presented the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, outlining ways that nations, cities, the private sector and civil society can commit to more ambitious climate action.

The president encouraged the world’s biggest carbon emitters to do more as the most vulnerable countries begin to pay the price. 

Loeak is not the only one calling on world leaders for more significant action. Tens of thousands are expected to attend the People’s Climate March on Sunday in New York City ahead of the summit.

With Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers got a taste of what could become the new normal in coming decades if global warming is not addressed in a meaningful way. Many scientists said the October 2012 hurricane was exacerbated by warmer global temperatures, and some parts of the East Coast are still recovering from the damage caused by the unusually strong storm.

In order to stop the worst effects of climate change, scientists have said that the average global temperature must not rise beyond two degrees Celsius. When leaders announce their climate action plans on Tuesday, scientists will be able to calculate whether those cuts will be enough to stay below that red line and avoid triggering "abrupt" worldwide consequences.

Previous commitments have not been significant enough to do so. When U.N. members met in Bonn, Germany, in June to pledge increased cuts, U.S. President Barack Obama promised to cut carbon emissions at American power plants by 30 percent. But a German study released soon after the conference warned that despite the pledges, the world was still facing a warming of 3 to 4.6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Loeak warned the world against indifference, saying what is happening in his country is just a foretaste of what other countries will soon experience.

“We are all in the same boat together; what is happening here is a mere preview … If my country goes, others will surely follow,” Loeak said.

"We are the canary in the coal mine."

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter