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CLIMATE CHANGE: Small Islands’ Warning Went Unheeded

Shiraz Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 11 2008 (IPS) - When the president of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, addressed the U.N. General Assembly about 20 years ago, he warned of the possible death of his tiny Indian Ocean island if steps were not taken to curb climate change.

At an expert panel discussion on climate change last week, the Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid asked a logical question: “Why have the warnings of the past 20 years gone unheeded?”

A nation consisting of around 1,190 individual islands, the Maldives is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change as most of the islands are only 1-2 metres above sea level.

According to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sea level rise caused by global warming is very likely to exacerbate storm surges and coastal erosion of small islands.

Such events damage the infrastructure of human settlements and have numerous adverse health and economic effects. Fresh water resources and agricultural soil is contaminated, marine ecosystems which support fisheries are polluted, and non-indigenous invasive species spread throughout these islands.

Shahid, who chaired the panel discussion on “the economic, social, and human rights implications of global climate change”, posed a series of questions.

“Why does mankind continue to pursue manifestly unsustainable economic growth strategies at the expense of the global ecosphere?” he asked. “Most importantly, how can we change the global debate on climate change? And how can we move the world from an attitude of self-indulgent negligence to one of shared responsibility and global solidarity?”

Shahid went on to say that the global attitude of negligence towards climate change is partly due to its perception as an abstract scientific issue, and that there has not been enough emphasis on its humanitarian consequences.

He concluded that, “The world has failed to humanise climate change.”

The Maldives have taken measures to mitigate the effects of climate change, including the construction of a 60-million-dollar concrete sea wall around the capital of Male and the construction of an artificial island that stands well above sea-level.

However, these efforts are not a permanent solution and if climate change continues to accelerate at its current pace, the Maldives may not survive.

Even before the sea level rises to the point where an entire island is submerged, islands and coastal areas can become uninhabitable due to damage to local infrastructure and frequent natural disasters.

For the Maldives, and many others similarly imperiled, the need for international aid and assistance in not only mitigating but halting climate change is paramount, experts say.

Shahid cited the “Human Dimension of Global Climate Change”, an initiative of the Maldives, and a resolution put forth to the United Nations Human Rights Council based in Geneva.

The resolution, adopted by consensus, was cosponsored by 80 states and calls for a study of the relationship between climate change and human rights, to precede the 10th session of the Human Rights Council in March of 2009.

By demonstrating that climate change compromises basic human rights and halts socioeconomic development, the Maldives hopes to instill a moral and ethical imperative for the international community to take substantial action against it.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, agreed on the importance of dramatically cutting global carbon dioxide emissions before the situation for many nations spins out of control.

“The next generation, really I think, will look with absurdity at the struggle that we have gone through in the last 30 years when long ago we first noticed the phenomenon and then spent 20 years trying to calibrate the science to the point where it would withstand the political debate,” he said.

Jerry Talbot of the International Federation of the Red Cross discussed the need for further study and evaluation of the social aspects of climate change, including the need to view climate change as an issue of global social justice, to understand the impact on climate change on different social groups, and to develop powerful methods to anticipate the social impacts of climate change.

“We cannot always prevent disasters, we know that, but we need to focus on mitigating the growing complex risks many millions of people now face,” he said.

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