Small is underwater

June 2, 2009

One motely group of tiny countries have a lot to lose if the climate talks in Copenhagen this December fail. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) is a grouping of 43 small island countries like Vanuatu, Maldives, Cyprus, Cuba… who are already experiencing the impacts of human-accelerated climate change while the rest of us are twiddling our thumbs about what to do about it. These islands are bound to be the first casualities of global sea level rise and for most the only adaptation choice is evacuation. Some like Tuvalu are already preparing for a full-scale evacuation to Australia or New Zealand (if they will have them that is). With the clock ticking, they watch with exasperation as the big emitters shuffle their feet over climate commitments and funding. With a mere 5% of the world’s population, these isles realised that together they would form a more effective lobby group with 20% of the U.N membership.

Indeed, they were quite effective in the early days of the climate talks despite the limited economic and political clout of its individual members. Their plight gave them the status of the ‘conscience’ of the climate negotations, a glimpse of the worst case scenario if we didn’t get our act together on time. However, the immediate need for ‘ecological effectiveness’ in climate talks that AOSIS championed was soon overshadowed by other interests affecting the big players. The developed countries and OPEC began to¬† lobby for ‘economic effectiveness’ as the key basis for any climate deal, where minimum damage to the economy had precedence over what was best for the environment. Climate commitments became economic commitments and countries vied with each over to jump the climate fence with the lightest commitment load, applauded by their relieved industries and consumers. Simultaneously, developing countries began lobbying for ‘social and equity effectiveness’ which translated into the oft repeated ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ slogan.

Interestingly, this trend is not new. The wildlife conservation sector faced a very similar set of divergent priorities. The initial need for ‘ecological effectiveness’ led to the creation of Protected Area Networks for in situ conservation. Within these safe havens, wildlife had priority over all else. However, poaching as a result of alienation of local people forced the conservation movement to embrace the ‘social and equitable’ model of community based conservation. Another group demanded that wildlife must ‘pay its way’ and introduced ‘sustainable’ hunting and ‘ecotourism’ for ‘economically effective’ conservation. Ultimately, what we are left with are wildlife refuges that adopt one, two or all three of these approaches in varying degrees depending on the local situation. This amalgamation of priorities took the better part of a 100 years to achieve and conservationists still argue endlessly about the relative merits of these approaches. We do not have a 100 years to create a climate deal, only a few months. For our small island friends it may already be too late.