October 6, 2022

As world leaders from rich countries acknowledge the “existential threat” of climate change, Tuvalu Prime Minister Kause Natano is racing to save his tiny island nation from drowning by raising it four to five meters above sea level through land reclamation.

While experts are issuing warnings about the eventual uninhabitability of the Marshall Islands, President David Kabua he must reconcile the injustice of a sea wall built to protect one house that now floods another next door.

This is the reality of climate change: some people talk about it from afar, while others have to live it every day.

Natano and Kabua tried to show that reality on Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Together they launched the Rising Nations Initiative, a global partnership aimed at preserving the sovereignty, heritage and rights of Pacific atoll island nations whose very existence is threatened by climate change.

Natano described how rising sea levels have affected everything from the soil his people rely on to plant crops, to the homes, roads and power lines it washes away. The cost of living, he said, eventually becomes too much to bear, causing families to leave and the nation itself to disappear.

“This is how a Pacific atoll dies,” Natano said. “So our islands will cease to exist.”

The Emerging Nations Initiative seeks a political declaration by the international community to preserve the sovereignty and rights of Pacific atoll island countries; creating a comprehensive program to build and finance adaptation and resilience projects to help local communities sustain their livelihoods; a living repository of the culture and unique heritage of each Pacific atoll island country; and support for the acquisition of UNESCO World Heritage status.

The initiative has already received support from countries such as the United States, Germany, South Korea and Canada, all of which have recognized the unique burden that island nations like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands have to bear.

Report of the UN Intergovernmental Commission on Climate Change published in February, cited the vulnerability of small island developing states and other global hotspots such as Africa and South Asia, whose populations are 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather compared to less vulnerable parts of the world.

If the warming goes another few tens of degrees, it could make some areas – including some small islands – uninhabitable, said report co-author Adelle Thomas of Climate Analytics and the University of the Bahamas. On Wednesday, Natano noted that Tuvalu and its Pacific neighbors “have done nothing to cause climate change,” with their contribution to carbon emissions amounting to less than .03% of the world’s total.

“This is the first time in history that the collective action of many nations will render several sovereign countries uninhabitable,” he said.

Representatives of other nations who attended Wednesday’s event did not deny responsibility. But whether they will do enough to turn things around remains to be seen.

Several have pledged money to help island nations pay for early warning systems and bring their buildings up to code to better protect them from hurricanes and other weather events. But there was less talk about mitigating the problem of climate change, and more about how to adapt to the destruction it has already caused.

“We see this train coming, and it’s coming down the track, and we have to get out of the way,” said Amy Pope, deputy director general of the International Organization for Migration.

Germany’s climate envoy, Jennifer Morganwho also attended Wednesday’s event, spoke about her country’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. But while Germany remains committed to phasing out coal as an energy source by 2030, it has had to restart coal-fired power plants to weather the coming winter amid shortages energy as a result of the Russian war in Ukraine.

For the president of the Marshall Islands, rich nations could do a lot more. During his speech at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Kabua called on world leaders to take on sectors that rely on fossil fuels, including aviation and shipping. He pointed to the Marshall Islands’ proposal for a carbon levy on international shipping that he says will “encourage the transition to zero-emission shipping, channeling resources from polluters to the most vulnerable.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also encouraged going after the world’s biggest polluters. During his opening remarks to the assembly on Tuesday, he called for wealthier countries to tax the profits of energy companies and redirect funds both to “countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis” and to those struggling with the rising cost of living.

Meanwhile, as rich countries call for action instead of words in their speeches at the UN, Kabua, Natano and the leaders of their island nations will continue to grapple with the daily reality of climate change – and try to survive.


Pia Sarkar, a reporter for The Associated Press in Philadelphia, is on assignment to cover the UN General Assembly. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PiaSarkar_TK and for more AP coverage of the UN General Assembly, visit https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly

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