Richard Drew/AP

Pacific island nations lead by example at UN climate summit

As the world’s largest polluters discuss future action, vulnerable smaller nations lead the charge to renewables

UNITED NATIONS — Big polluters represented at the United Nations Climate Summit are eyeing pledges of action to mitigate the potentially disastrous results of global warming in the coming years. But for small island states whose very existence is at stake, time is not a luxury they possess. They used part of the meeting Tuesday in New York to tout what they are doing now to reduce carbon emissions, hoping it may spur similar moves elsewhere.

“We have come to announce what we’ve already started doing,” Peter Thomson, Fiji’s permanent representative to the U.N., told Al Jazeera. “We have a green growth strategy in place, and by the year 2030, we will have put in place a plan to generate all of our electricity from renewables.”

Thomson said his Pacific island is responsible for “less than 0.6 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions” and yet is actively working on bringing down its carbon footprint.

This active approach has been sparked by very direct needs. Pacific island nations and other low-lying areas around the world are not in a position to wait for the world’s top polluters — including China, India, the U.S. and Russia — to find the political will for change.

“We recognize our role in creating this problem,” President Barack Obama said at the U.N. summit, adding that the U.S. has reduced its carbon emissions more than any other country over the past eight years.

Obama said his administration has seen wind power increase threefold and solar tenfold. In the face of a changing climate, he added, the U.S. will focus on building infrastructure that can better withstand the effects of global warming and will include climate change resilience in federal aid packages for developing countries already being affected.

China has promised to do its part in mitigating the effects of climate change. Shortly after Obama's comments at the U.N., the Chinese government reaffirmed the promise of a 40-to-45-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels.

For vulnerable islands, those promises may come too late. Rising seas, more severe storms and drought threaten their very existence.

Before arriving in New York for the summit, Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak released a video address imploring world leaders to act now. He spoke in front of a seawall he built to keep the rising ocean from flooding his family home.

Marshall Island resident Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner was selected from over 500 applicants to represent her country in New York. It provided a rare opportunity for government and business leaders to hear about the impact of climate change on those whose homes and livelihoods may be lost as a result.

“I feel Marshallese voices and the voices of islanders in general are marginalized in the climate dialogue,” Jetnil-Kijiner told Al Jazeera. “I felt it was important to represent for those voices and also for indigenous, women and young mothers.”

She attended the conference with her infant daughter and husband, Makerusa Porotesano, from the nearby — and similarly threatened — island of American Samoa.

The U.N. summit comes just months after the Marshall Islands suffered their biggest king tides in memory. In March water raged through the capital, Majuro. At the same time, a state of emergency was declared in the country’s north because of a severe drought and drinking water shortage.

As with Fiji, the Marshall Islands is already on the path to clean energy. After decades of the wide use of diesel generators, the outer islands now see 95 percent of their power come from solar energy. There are also plans afoot to develop ocean thermal energy strategies to further move away from nonrenewable sources.

At a New York event leading up to today’s summit, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony DeBrum said he hoped his country would serve as an example of climate change adaptation. He also hoped his country’s actions would spur others to follow its lead with their own green strategies.

But a move to renewables is not the only action being taken by small islands in the Pacific.

Other nations, under the assumption that it is now too late to remove the threat from rising tides, have begun buying land on higher ground. Scientists predict a one-to- two-meter sea level rise by the end of the century.

Kiribati has already bought land in Fiji, de Brum said, and nearby Tuvalu is exploring options in Australia and New Zealand.

Porotesano said American Samoa, like other Pacific islands, is already experiencing extreme weather as a result of climate change, the likes of which may be commonplace in years to come.

“I’ve been through two bad hurricanes, and I missed the third one, and, speaking to my parents, that’s not something they had to deal with,” he said. “It’s unfortunate but it’s a new story that our generation will have to tell.”

Like residents of small island states, many indigenous peoples are already feeling the effects of climate change despite minimal contributions to carbon pollution. After decades of exploiting fossil fuel and forests, corporations are increasingly encroaching on indigenous lands to find these resources, rights groups say.

Candido Mezua Sálazar, chief of the Panamanian tribe Embera Wounaan Comarca, told Al Jazeera he attended the conference with a coalition of indigenous people from three continents.

“We are aware that climate change is affecting indigenous lands,” he said. “There’s more pressure on our territory and resources.”

He said the coalition called on the U.N. to create an indigenous people’s territory climate fund “so that we can continue to use our knowledge to protect the forest.”

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