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At climate conference, vulnerable island nations are 'the ants trying to move the elephants'

At climate conference, vulnerable island nations are 'the ants trying to move the elephants'
Participants and guests at the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Katowice, Poland. (Andrzej Grygiel / EPA/Shutterstock)

Small island states and poor nations already suffering from sea level rise and other global warming effects took a stand at the U.N. climate change conference over wealthier nations’ relative lack of urgency. It boiled down to a fight over one word.

The diplomatic standoff centered on whether to “welcome” or to “note” the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that warned the impacts of global warming are occurring at a faster pace than previously predicted.

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“For the vulnerable countries, there is a sense that we are the ants trying to move the elephants,” said Renato “Red” Constantino, a delegate for the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a consortium of 48 of the most vulnerable nations to global warming’s effects.

The conflict erupted during climate talks between delegates from nearly 200 countries at the annual conference being held in Katowice. This year’s conference, which began Dec. 3 and ends Dec. 14, is tasked with creating procedural guidelines for implementing the 2015 Paris climate change agreement.

Smaller nations, some already losing land to the sea, insisted on the stronger language endorsing the IPCC report, which said that if greenhouse gas emissions continued unabated, the atmosphere would warm as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the preindustrial averages by 2040, worsening droughts, wildfires, sea level rise and poverty. Global temperatures have already risen an average of about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels.

But the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait blocked endorsing the report. They only wanted the conference document to “note” the October study.

The negotiations, normally bureaucratic affairs, turned contentious. One by one, representatives of a dozen countries spoke out against the larger nations' refusal to accept the report from the panel considered to be the world’s most definitive body on climate change.

The small island nations’ voices emerged with impassioned speeches filling a void.

“This is not a choice between one word and another,” said Rueanna Haynes, a delegate for St. Kitts and Nevis. The twin island federation’s water resources are vulnerable to sea level rise, the U.N. says. “It seems to me that if there is anything ludicrous about the discussion that is taking place, it is that we in this body are not in a position to welcome the report.”

The room erupted in applause.

“This [IPCC] report has changed everything,” a delegate from the Maldives said, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, a negotiating bloc in the climate talks. “Urgency, which is what we need to exercise, is being ignored by some in the room. What signal does it send to the world if we can’t accept the best science available?” For the Maldives, the U.N. says, climate change is an existential threat.

Ian Fry, the delegate from Tuvalu, said his low-lying island group between Hawaii and Australia was “deeply disappointed that one group of parties could not accept the consensus in the room.” Tuvalu is already shrinking, with many residents moving to New Zealand.

Saudi Arabia’s delegate threatened to block the entire discussion if others pushed to change the single word and warned that trouble loomed for the next week. The U.S. delegate said America would note the study’s findings but added that that “does not imply endorsement.”

The IPCC report suggests the use of fossil fuels be phased out entirely by 2050. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are OPEC members. Russia, one of the world's top oil and gas exporters, never signed the Paris agreement. And President Trump has rejected the agreement, vowed to increase the use of coal and mocked the very notion of human-caused climate change.

“What the countries who opposed welcoming the IPCC report did was essentially reject climate science,” said Li Shuo, a senior global policy advisor in Greenpeace’s Beijing office. “They therefore are opposing the global efforts to curb climate change.”

Small island states have a lot to lose and everything to gain by being the strongest climate champions in the room, said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the leader of World Wildlife Fund’s global climate and energy practice. Pulgar-Vidal was the president of the climate talks four years ago in Peru.

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“These are the countries that fought for a stronger Paris agreement when it was formed in 2015, and these are the countries that are going to be calling for the world to step up,” he said. “They can help fill the void in leadership by building a coalition of countries pushing for stronger action, giving other nations the political cover they need to join in.”

Many of those poorer countries are most affected by rising global temperatures, while most of the wealthiest, developed nations are emitting the most carbon pollutants, climate researchers say.

Progress has been slow so far at the conference as countries agree on technical complexities and language on how countries will monitor their carbon emissions, adopt national climate change action plans, and assist developing nations in adapting to the effects to the consequences of global warming.

“There's high anxiety among many of the vulnerable countries that this conference might result in more talks about more dialogue in the future, rather than actions that scientists say are completely necessary,” said Constantino, the Climate Vulnerable Forum delegate who also advises the head of delegates for the Philippines, his home. His nation ranked fifth in the 2019 global long-term climate risk index from the Germanwatch research group.

Constantino said there is also worry that Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement has created hesitation at the negotiating table. That has left many delegates from developing countries on edge, worried other rich countries could drop out too, he said.

On Monday, ministers from the Paris agreement’s 195 signatory countries will begin to iron out the issues that require a diplomatic response. And the debate over “note” or “welcome” has set the scene for a political fight.

"We can expect that the IPCC report will be an ongoing point of discussion. This is going to come back and bite them," Camille Born, a senior policy advisor at the environmental think tank E3, said of the four nations. "It's not encouraging to see countries grouping against science."

The conference is not just about the guidebook for the Paris agreement. The delegates will also develop and sign off on their Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, the official term for each country’s domestic plan to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. For many here, this is as important as the Paris agreement guidebook.

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All 48 members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum have pledged to get to zero carbon emissions by 2050. And many of them are already having to adapt to severe impacts of global warming.

“Vulnerable countries are beginning to feel fatigued with the recycled decisions from the past 10 years,” said Farhana Yamin, a member of the advisory board of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and an advisor to the Marshall Islands’ delegation.

“We've been ‘taking note’ of the urgency of climate action, calling on each other to act with urgency for 10 years. More of them are saying now that we have to move from urgency to emergency.”

Twitter: @sabraayres

Ayres is a special correspondent.

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