Evan Vucci / AP

Obama meets heads of small island nations at risk of climate catastrophe

President of second-biggest carbon emitter notes low-lying states ‘among the most vulnerable’ to global warming

The president of the world’s second-biggest carbon emitting country met with leaders from small island nations on the front lines of global warming at the United Nations climate conference in Paris on Tuesday.

U.S. President Barack Obama said that without an ambitious treaty at the end of COP21 — a two-week conference running through Dec. 11 where 149 world dignitaries have gathered to address climate change — people may be forced to evacuate islands threatened by rising seas, flooding and extreme weather.

While meeting presidents and prime ministers from nations such as the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Barbados, Obama said that those states haven’t contributed much to climate change but are “among the most vulnerable.”

Rising seas resulting from global warming threaten the existence of the low-lying island states. Kiribati has begun buying land in nearby Fiji, anticipating possible forced evacuation. In the Marshall Islands, an atoll nation in the Pacific Ocean, floods have swept over the capital island Majuro in recent years, and severe drought simultaneously hit islands in the north.

Residents there have begun building seawalls to keep the ocean from swamping their homes, and the country is struggling to adapt quickly enough to mitigate climate change effects.

“As an island boy, [Obama] understands the unique challenges we face. The meeting was a chance to talk, at a very personal level, about how vulnerable we are to climate impacts and that we all need to work together to tackle what is now the gravest risk to humanity,” Marshall Islands President Christopher J. Loeak said in a statement after the meeting.

“Everything I know — and everyone I love — is in the hands of all of us gathered here in Paris,” he said. “This is the most important trip of my life. I need to be able to return to my people and say that we joined a Paris agreement that gives us hope and a pathway to survival.” 

Countries like the Marshall Islands need resources to adapt to a problem they didn’t create, and deciding which nations are responsible for funding that has been a major sticking point in negotiations. The U.N. Green Climate Fund aims to raise $100 billion for developing nations to adapt to climate change and transition to green economies.

Obama called Tuesday for global financing to be directed toward the unique needs of vulnerable island states. The U.S. has said it will give $3 billion to the fund, but that is subject to congressional approval.

During his meeting with leaders of small island states, Obama called for the carbon-cutting targets in the Paris treaty to be legally binding. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called that into question earlier this month — prompting French President François Hollande to say there would be no point to a treaty if it is nonbinding.

Specific targets and proposals to transition to green economies pledged by each country as part of COP21, which together aim to keep the global temperature rise above preindustrial times to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), may not have the force of treaties, Obama said, but nations must hold one another accountable, and it was important that periodic reviews of those targets be legally binding.

Experts who have tallied national pledges already know they won’t be sufficient to limit warming to 2 C, and U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said in September that they put Earth on track for nearly 3 C warming by 2100.

For small island nations, that’s a death sentence. Many of the islands have called for warming to be limited to 1.5 C. Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony DeBrum has said anything above 1.5 C would swamp his country.

The world has already warmed by 1 C, scientists said last month.

That’s why Obama is calling for the periodic reviews, during which countries could put forward more ambitious plans, to be taken seriously.

As he called on other leaders to help vulnerable states, protesters at the Paris talks chanted, “Keep this fair. Do your share.”

With wire services

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