At climate summit, they’re feeling like deserted islands


In the scrum of 9,000 negotiators gathered in Cancun to wrangle over a global climate treaty Ronny Jumeau has no patience for diplomatic niceties.

“I won’t shut up,” said the pugnacious chief of the three-member delegation from Seychelles, an Indian Ocean archipelago. “Even when we’re underwater, when the bubbles pop, you’ll hear us yelling.”

Jumeau is a member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a negotiating bloc of 43 nations already suffering the ill effects of climate change: longer droughts, bigger floods, stronger hurricanes and rising seas. The countries circle the globe from the Pacific to the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean, and they are furious that the industrial nations — the big emitters of greenhouse gases — are not moving fast enough to ensure their survival.


As the 12-day summit moves into high gear this week, small island nations may be the noisiest critics, but they are hardly alone in their frustration that a legally binding agreement to reduce planet-heating pollutants has no chance to be concluded here.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Wednesday that the Cancun talks “won’t result in anything” because no major leaders are attending.

Climate negotiations in Copenhagen ended in acrimony last year, with 120 heads of state, including President Obama, in attendance. This year, except for a few leaders of smaller nations, ministers and diplomats are doing the talking.

Rather than raise hopes for a global treaty, Cancun delegates aim to make progress on a “balanced package” of side agreements. Among them: pacts on deforestation which is responsible for 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and on the verification of pledged emission cuts, a thorny issue between China and the United States.

Vulnerable nations are counting on billions of dollars, promised by wealthy countries in Copenhagen, to rebuild wetlands to absorb flooding and rising tides, store fresh water during droughts, reinforce buildings to resist typhoons — and otherwise defend themselves against calamities they blame on climate change.

“But pledges mean nothing,” said Jumeau, who also serves as Seychelles’ ambassador to the United States. “Bring something that lands on the table with a clunk.”


A treaty landing on the table is being stalled, however, by fights over which countries should cut their emissions, by how much, and how to make sure that happens.

Jumeau, 52, is in the thick of the battle, rushing from negotiating session to bilateral meeting and back again, past the manicured lawns, palm trees and turquoise pools of the 600-acre Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, where the talks are taking place.

Gregarious and intensely on-message, the former newspaper editor and natural resources minister is an old hand, having navigated previous conferences in Bali; Poznan, Poland; Bonn; and Copenhagen. “If we don’t solve climate change, nothing else matters,” he said, “because many of us will be wiped off the face of the Earth.”

Between sessions, Jumeau plunges into the chaotic whirl of the scientists, activists, business executives and journalists at the conference. He holds forth at environmental seminars, sits for interviews with bloggers, updates his Facebook page and chats with students.

“I’ll talk to anyone,” he said. “I don’t care who they are as long as the word gets out.”

The negotiations “are demoralizing,” he said. “You’re talking to people who refuse to listen. But then your Facebook friends say, ‘Way to go, Ronny. Give ‘em hell!’”

Seychelles, a group of about 150 islands, has fallen victim to the sort of “extreme weather events” that scientists have been documenting around the world as the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rises, along with average global temperatures.


Drought has left the islands, which depend on tourism, fishing and tuna canning, with a 20-day supply of drinking water, Jumeau said. Desalination plants are running at full capacity, but that means burning expensive fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming.

“The cost of producing food, drinking water and everything is going up, all because some people messed up the atmosphere,” Jumeau told a seminar on “Food Security and Human Rights in Small Island Developing States and the Arctic,” one of more than 150 side events last week.

Island states, most of them in the tropics, are forging alliances with Greenlanders, Inuit and native Alaskans. “It’s simple,” Jumeau said. “As the poles melt, we drown.”

Since the Industrial Revolution, rising carbon dioxide levels have trapped more heat in the atmosphere, raising the average global temperature about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit), according to numerous scientific studies.

In the waning hours of last year’s talks, the United States, China and a few other large emitters drafted a non-binding three-page “accord” urging “deep cuts in global emissions” to keep the average rise in global temperature below 2 degrees C (3.6 F). As the atmosphere has warmed, the oceans have absorbed more heat, expanding their mass and driving a rise in sea levels and a bleaching of coral reefs around the globe.

Worldwide, about 1billion people rely on reefs for their livelihoods and nutrition. Seychelles’ spectacular reefs, a draw for tourists, are also spawning grounds for fish.


A growing number of scientists say that warming should be held to 1.5 degrees C to prevent widespread catastrophic consequences. Small island states and developing nations such as Bangladesh, convinced they will be inundated if it gets any warmer than that, are demanding that Cancun negotiators commission a study on the effects of a 1.5-degree target.

“Our mantra is, ‘One-point-five to stay alive,’” Jumeau said.

But the move has been blocked by Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer.

“Our beaches are eroding and our reefs are collapsing,” Jumeau said. “I’m not talking about what climate change will do in the future. I’m talking about what it is doing right now.”

Seychelles’ government is placing protective granite boulders along the coast. But “stronger waves are battering the beaches,” Jumeau said. “Much of the capital sits below sea level. We are in danger of losing our airport, our fishing port, our beaches, our hotels.”

With its thriving tourism, Seychelles doesn’t qualify for development aid given to poorer countries. “But we can’t afford the interest on international bank loans,” Jumeau said, adding that much of the money the World Bank and industrial nations plan to offer is in the form of loans.

“How is that fair?” he asked. “It is as if someone drives a car into your backyard, smashes the fence, crushes your garden and kills your plastic flamingo. Then he says, ‘I’ll give you a loan for messing up your yard, but you must pay me back.’”

As he sits in a cavernous negotiating hall, flanked by delegates from Serbia and Sierra Leone, Jumeau lets the diplomatic jargon from the monitors overhead wash over him: mitigation, adaptation, transparency, shared but differentiated responsibility.


“We know we won’t get the agreement we want,” he mused. “We’re trying to get the best we can.”