NEW YORK, New York — There are flowers everywhere. Their purples, reds, and whites make for a striking contrast to the more somber sea of navy blue, black, and grey suits of the dignitaries who wear them around their necks. It’s early on a Wednesday morning and as they eat their breakfasts in the United Nations’ New York headquarters, they’re discussing how to ensure that all of their countries survive long enough for them to live out their days after their time in government is done.
The meeting is among the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and their supporters, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Given their stature on the world stage, it’s one of the few places where their numbers actually matter and their vote counts exactly the same as the United States and other major powers. Gathered together over plates of eggs, diplomats from such states as Barbados and Nauru are discussing how to draw attention to their upcoming meeting on the island of Samoa next year, the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States. All thirty-eight of the members are under threat of becoming a modern day Atlantis, their homes consumed by the rising seas.
Wreathed in a lei himself, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon deviates from his prepared remarks while addressing the group. “I visited the Solomon Islands and Kiribati two years ago,” he says. “I think I am maybe one of the very few world leaders to visit these small islands and saw and understood for myself.” While staying at his hotel on one of Kiribati’s islands as a layover on the way to New Zealand, the South Korean diplomat tells the gathered leaders, he and his wife were both given lifejackets. “Because this island is sinking and the highest point on this island is just three meters high,” he explains, just barely higher than sea-level. Depending on the tide, the waters that surround Kiribati can easily rise above that level, leading cars to have to drive through shallow seawater during these times. “That really gave me a strong conviction that we must address this,” Ban says firmly.
The theme of potential loss is one that will run throughout the General Assembly as the island states make their statements at the temporary podium erect as a substitute while the actual General Assembly Hall undergoes renovation. “Climate change is, without question, the gravest threat to my people’s welfare, livelihoods and general security,” Emanual Mori, the president of Micronesia, told the hall on Wednesday. “When I was a child, my back yard did not flood,” President Tommy Remengesau of Palau echoed, “and we did not have tropical storm after tropical storm pass through our Pacific islands.” Their pleas struggle to cut through the buzz surrounding other, more high-profile, events of the week, especially diplomatic breakthroughs surrounding Iran and Syria.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report on Friday, officially titled the Fifth Assessment Report. The results look grim. In a press briefing at the United Nations the previous day laying the ground work for the release, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Christiana Figueres told reporters that the then-forthcoming report shows what is already apparent to many people around the world.
“Whether you choose to read the science or not, we as individuals, as human beings, have evidence of climate change in front of our face,” she said. “Those of you who live in New York remember [Superstorm] Sandy. Those Americans who live in the Midwest remember the droughts in the Midwest. You don’t even have to read the science. You just see climate change in front of you.”
Those changes go beyond the shrinking sea ice most people think of when they hear of rising waters. In fact, the greater dangers come from the melting of the glaciers and the heating of the waters; warmer water becomes less dense, giving it greater liscense to creep onto previously dry land. The process also has been contributing to greater acidification of the seas and a spike in deadly storms, both of which impact the tourist and fishing industries of these countries alike, livelihoods for many.
Later on after Wednesday’s breakfast meeting, I made my way out from the madness surrounding the General Assembly, past the police barricades blocking off access to First Avenue, and into Midtown proper. Some of the larger U.N. missions have entire ornate buildings devoted to them. I walk past the newly completed U.S. Mission, a hulking monstrosity devoid of windows for the first several floors past the lobby, and the Indian Mission with its ornately carved doors. In contrast, a nondescript office building on Second Avenue houses the Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
I’m there to meet with Minister-in-Assistance to the President Tony de Brum, the Marshall equivalent of the vice presidency. He’s running behind as earlier bilateral meetings are creeping into his interviews with other media personalities. While I wait, a reporter from Al Jazeera America comes and sits as well, also looking to speak with him about climate issues. After about twenty minutes, I’m led down the hall and into an relatively modest office where de Brum and I settle onto couches to talk.
Minister de Brum is in high spirits, something of a surprise given the dour reports coming from climate scientists. “It’s been a busy month,” he says as we sit. “But a happy busy.” The Marshall Islands are ground zero for the impacts of climate change. In 2004, then-president Kessai Note claimed that his people could become the world’s first climate refugees, forced to relocate en masse from their homes due to the rising waters. Almost ten years later his country is battling a severe — and cruelly ironic — drought in which desalination plants had to be shipped in to supply water.
Earlier this month, however, de Brum’s country played host to the Pacific Islands Forum, where Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell led the American delegation. Climate change was the topic of choice and in the end, the countries present agreed to a document known as the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership. Representatives of both the United States and European Union signed on to the non-binding agreement, a fact that de Brum frequently points to as a sign for optimism.
“That’s the kind of thing that keeps you going in this business, because it seems sometimes like such a thankless and frustrating job,” he says with a broad smile. “But when you hit this kind of a milestone and the Majuro Declaration being the platform that people are using to get on the train, it just feels good.”
The result is that he’s now feeling more positive than he was days ago, let alone months ago. “Within our own group in Pacific Island Forum, there were naysayers,” he tells me. “It was like ‘You’re kidding, you think the United States is going to sign on to something like – never, never’ that kind of talk. Even during the week that we were working on it. And here within thirty days we have two of the biggest emitters on board.”
Looking around the Marshalls’ neighborhood, de Blum is pleased with the United States’ steps so far, but can’t hide his disappointment that Australia’s recent elections have produced a government that doesn’t seem as eager to tackle climate change as its predecessor. “They’re the big boys in the neighborhood and we’re going to do what we can,” he says, describing the two weeks he spent traveling the country before the elections.
“We fully understand the politics of Australia at least vis a vis climate change,” he says, before pausing for a moment. “Understand may be the wrong word. We try to understand what they’re doing, but sometimes its not so easy to understand.”
Eventually, though, de Blum hopes that those in the Pacific will see which way things are going and join the movement and that climate doubters like Canada and Brazil will react positively towards the U.S. signing the Majuro Declaration. Even from China and India, both of whom were blamed for scuttling talks at Copenhagen for a binding climate document in 2010, he sees hope. Both were present for the Majuro meeting, though they didn’t sign the declaration, but they saw as Ban did the very real effects of climate change. At the airport on the islands, sandbags line the runway, holding back the tide so that planes can land on dry land.
When I ask him about what contingency plans are in place in case climate change continues apace, de Blum’s mood darkens some. “Part of the problem with trying to think about contingency plans is that when you do that, you’re admitting defeat,” he replies. “You’re saying there’s nothing I can do about stopping this. But as responsible leaders you must be prudent and keep that in mind. You have to have a Plan B as it were.”
Plan B, in this case, involves investment in technology that will be able to provide islanders with income, food security, and financial security in the event that global temperatures rise four degrees and sea level rises another six feet. The sea mounted technology, de Blum hopes, would allow for an economy continue even in the event of such a catastrophe. “If we have this technology in place, where these islands are living off their own value and resources, if our tuna value is enhanced because we have water and power to process it, if our tourist industry is alive and well because we have power and water to run it. Then you’ll have islands that don’t depend on anybody else for their livelihood. And that is the best way to prepare yourself for any eventuality in climate change.
“If we’re saying the only way to resist this thing is to have some sugar daddy take care of us, then it’s not gonna work,” he says, stressing the need to make sure that any kind of climate change is not so terminal in the minds of islanders. “And let me tell you, displacement of people in our part of the world is terminal. You know, you lose your sovereignty, you lose your language, you lose your tradition, you lose you.”
“That we cannot — that is so repugnant to islanders, it is difficult to get leaders to even sit down and consider it even for a cup of coffee’s worth,” he continues, “But it is still — a responsible leader must keep it in mind.” As the minister points out to me, Kiribati is investing in land in Fiji in the event they need to move. “That’s not a bad thing,” he says, “But myself, I sometimes feel that that might make people a little bit less vigilant and less proactive in trying to make sure that move doesn’t happen.”
“Marshallese people have been subject to moving for a century,” de Blum tells me. “Foreign governments come in and say, ‘Hey, leave this place, we want to turn it into a sugar cane field.’ Foreign governments come in and say ‘Move I want to test my atomic bombs.’ Another foreign government comes in and says ‘Move, we’re going to build bases so we can attack Pearl Harbor. So we’ve been through this process before. There are still people in the Marshalls who live on lands not their own, and some of whose homelands will remain uninhabitable for the next 12,000 years. So the prospect of displacing a population or even a small community, even within the Marshalls is something that we don’t even like to think about or talk about.”
There are numerous opportunities in the next two years to prevent that outcome, as a slew of international summits on climate change are already on the calender. As de Blum told me, these next two years are in fact the most critical, as commitments need to be in place by 2015 that take effect no later than 2020. And so over the next twenty-four months, in places as disparate as Palau and Warsaw, Samoa and New York City, the world will strive to strike a deal that grants the Marshallese and their neighbors the chance to continue living out Plan A. Because Plan B may be more than they’re able to bear.