Small Countries Fight For Their Lives In Paris, But Have Little Control

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Perry

In this Saturday, May 30, 2015, photo, children play on the beach in the town of Takara, on Efate Island, Vanuatu. The town was damaged in March during Cyclone Pam. Many people in the town are considering rebuilding their community on higher ground to escape what they believe are the ongoing effects of climate change.

Rising seas, melting icecaps, bigger storms. Scientists and world leaders know we need to stop global warming before it hits 2°C, which is why so many are gathered now in Paris for the United Nations climate talks.

In the lead-up to the negotiations, nearly every country in the world submitted an Independent Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), an outline of what it would do to combat climate change. But even while many leaders seem to think they are navigating a historic, ambitious course, under these current commitments alone, we are actually sailing not towards a 2°C cut-off, but rather towards a rise of 3.5°C.

Large, wealthy countries might think they can prepare and protect themselves, but other countries won’t get that chance.

Small countries — island nations like Vanuatu and Seychelles, mountain countries like Nepal, coastal nations like Nicaragua and Panama — are among the most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, as coasts and snowpacks disappear. These countries also have the least control over the world’s course, in two ways. First, they have little political influence. But they also have little physical influence over our environment. Emissions are so imbalanced that it is impossible for most small countries to make meaningful carbon reductions.

Nicaragua, for instance, could cut its carbon footprint in half and still only reduce the world’s emissions by less than two hundredths of a percent. The top 20 carbon emitters — led by China, the United States, the European Union, and India — account for 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. If those countries don’t take climate change seriously, there is little small countries can do about it. And many of these countries don’t see the Paris negotiations as a serious approach.

Take Nicaragua, for instance. Nicaragua, which has both Atlantic and Pacific coastline and experienced crippling drought last year, has refused to submit an INDC to the United Nations climate conference.

“We’re not going to submit because voluntary responsibility is a path to failure,” Paul Oquist, Nicaragua’s lead envoy in Paris, told Climate Home. He said that the smallest 100 contributors have historically added just 3 percent of the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.

“There’s no willingness to make any sacrifices on policy sphere and that’s why we have this very poor level of ambition,” Oquist said of the current commitments. In other words, as long as the larger structural dependence on fossil fuels continues, it will be hard for the global community to make radical improvements in our climate prognosis.

But not all small countries have the same fatalistic view of the Paris negotiations. Some have banded together to put pressure on the international community.

The Small Island Developing States, a group of more than 50 island nations, have been outspoken on climate change. Ronald Jumeau, the Roving Ambassador for Climate Change and Small Island Developing State Issues for the Republic of Seychelles, testified at a climate change hearing called by House Democrats in November, arguing that action on climate change is critical. He disagreed, though, that there was nothing his group could do in Paris.

“Instead of concentrating on what will make Paris fail, we should concentrate on what will make Paris succeed,” Jumeau told ThinkProgress after the hearing. “We, the smallest countries in the world, we are talking less as victims now. We are talking as contributors to the solutions.”

Jumuea dismissed concerns that the U.S. Congress would be a stumbling block in an effort to get a global, binding resolution. “We are way past the time where if the United States didn’t act, everything would collapse. We work our way around it. Politically there’s never been so much momentum towards some sort of climate agreement.”

For as long as there has been climate action, there has been debate about who is responsible for reducing carbon emissions.

Some are already looking to blame the United States for failure in Paris. Congress has made it clear that it will not ratify a binding agreement, which limits what the United States can agree to. (And while some say the executive actions already taken, such as the Clean Power Plan, will suffice to fulfill the United States’ emissions reductions, they don’t offer much help for financing — a critical component of a successful Paris deal.)

On Monday, another group of small countries, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, 20 at-risk countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific, issued the their own attempt to put pressure on the Paris negotiations, calling for lowering the goal of climate action to 1.5°C.

“The current long-term temperature goal of holding global warming below 2°C is inadequate [and] it is essential that this target is strengthened towards a below 1.5°C goal,” the group resolved.

For now, though, it seems the world will struggle to attain the goals it has already set. On Friday, India and Saudi Arabia reportedly rejected the call for 1.5°C and the study that found a 2°C change over pre-industrial levels would doom some low-lying countries.