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Small island nations, threatened by rising seas, want stronger action at the climate-change summit in Poland

A general view of the ongoing COP24 summit activities Dec. 11 in Katowice, Poland. (Andrzej Grygiel/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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At the global climate summit in Poland this week, the small states most vulnerable to climate change are making the loudest calls for quick action on carbon emissions.

Leaders of several small island nations started a high-level debate session Tuesday by reminding delegates that their countries could be swallowed by rising seas if climate change is not checked. “The prosperity enjoyed by a few developed countries has become the tragedy and misery of the masses in the developing countries and particularly those most vulnerable to climate change,” said Kiribati’s president, Taneti Mamau.

Over the following twp days, groups of vulnerable nations publicly demanded that the conference produce meaningful results. The Small Island Developing States group (SIDS) issued a list of conditions Wednesday it says the international community must meet by the end of the summit, according to E&E News. On Thursday, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries released a statement saying they are “deeply concerned over the direction in which the outcomes of COP 24 are heading” and calling for the “immediate ratcheting up of climate ambition.”

“What is at stake is actually the very existence of small nations like the Maldives and others,” said Hussain Rasheed Hassan, the environment minister for the Maldives and head of the AOSIS, in a telephone interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday.

These small states had major industrialized nations on their side in 2015, when the Paris climate agreement was signed. But at this year’s summit, those key countries are no longer helping push the small states' message. “I’m afraid it’s not going through very well,” Hassan said.

This year’s climate summit is supposed to be where technical experts draft the “rule book” for implementing the pledges countries made under the Paris climate accords. That may still happen, but there has been little progress so far. The island nations are also hoping countries will raise their emissions-reduction targets for 2020 and that the summit will issue a strong closing statement making it clear that climate action is not happening fast enough to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius.

What to know about the big climate change meeting in Katowice, Poland

There are other, more modest goals, as well. One of those is “welcoming” a landmark climate report recently published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that the world must make major emissions cuts by 2030 to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The United States joined Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait in blocking that language, a move that seemed to cast doubt on climate science.

“You cannot question the science,” said Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, to The Post. “Science is science, and we are only asking countries to welcome a scientific report.”

Nasheed urged major industrial nations, including the United States, to see the imminent danger facing Maldives as a threat to themselves as well. “We all know that a quarter of the world’s population lives on low-lying areas,” he said. “With the Maldives, Manhattan will sink.”

Carlos Fuller, a negotiator for another group of island and low-lying nations, held out hope that delegates would still make progress at the summit even if they cannot hammer out a full rule book. “At the minimum, we’d like to see some broad agreements . . . and recognize that maybe we need to continue to refine the details of it at subsequent sessions,” he said.

For now, the biggest achievement has been a statement from the “Talanoa Dialogue,” a forum intended to let countries discuss their climate-change efforts and concerns with each other. The dialogue issued a “call to action” on Wednesday saying that governments and societies must ramp up climate action. “The window for action is closing fast — we need to do more and we need to do it now,” the call to action read.

It’s not clear yet whether other concrete actions will follow before the summit ends Friday or Saturday. But Fuller made clear the consequences if nothing is achieved in Poland. “If there is a total breakdown here,” he said, “then we are in jeopardy indeed of losing everything.”

This article has been updated with the statement by the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries.


An earlier version of this story mistakenly included China among the countries that blocked the welcoming of the U.N. climate report.

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