Get­ting that sink­ing feel­ing in tor­tu­ous UN cli­mate talks

Mal­dives warns of sea level rise

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

BONN: Ab­dul­lahi Ma­jeed was a young del­e­gate for the Mal­dives when low-ly­ing is­land states warned for the first time in 1989 that cli­mate change and ris­ing seas could “threaten the very sur­vival” of some na­tions. Now a 60-year-old vet­eran, Ma­jeed is still re­peat­ing that mes­sage, one of a hand­ful of del­e­gates to this month’s Paris cli­mate sum­mit who have been at­tend­ing tor­tu­ous UN ne­go­ti­a­tions to com­bat global warm­ing from the start. “It’s frus­trat­ing,” he said.“The sense of ur­gency is sim­ply not there.”

In count­less con­fer­ence halls from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, Ma­jeed has seen more set­backs than break­throughs, not least the failed Copen­hagen con­fer­ence in 2009. He is now pin­ning cau­tious hopes on the Paris sum­mit, from Nov 30-Dec 11, when al­most 200 na­tions will once more seek an ac­cord to curb man­made green­house gas emis­sions, blamed by al­most all lead­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists for ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures and sea lev­els. “There is more hope,” he said. “We can’t have an­other Copen­hagen.” In Novem­ber 1989, Ma­jeed was head of his coun­try’s me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal ser­vice when 14 is­land na­tions met in the cap­i­tal of the In­dian Ocean archipelago to sign the Male Dec­la­ra­tion about the risks of cli­mate change. It went al­most un­no­ticed out­side the sig­na­to­ries, which in­cluded Gre­nada, Fiji and Malta. At the time, few sci­en­tists blamed mankind for global warm­ing, and the fall of the Berlin Wall a week ear­lier was dom­i­nat­ing the world’s head­lines. “We knew it wouldn’t be plain sail­ing but we thought ‘We have to be­gin some­where’,”Ma­jeed said.

Now, the risks are far more widely known. Sea lev­els have risen by about 20 cm since 1900 and the U.N. panel of cli­mate sci­en­tists says they could swell again by be­tween 26 and 82 cm by the late 21st cen­tury, driven by a thaw of ice from Green­land to Antarc­tica. That would be a creep­ing threat to coasts from Bangladesh to Florida, to coastal cities from Lon­don to Shang­hai and to many low-ly­ing co­ral atolls. The Mal­dives, with a pop­u­la­tion of 345,000, is among the most vul­ner­a­ble since its high­est nat­u­ral point is just 2.4 me­ters above sea level.

‘Steady rock’

Robert Van Lierop of Van­u­atu, the first chair of the Al­liance of Small Is­land States (AOSIS) from 1991-94, said Ma­jeed had helped to set the tone for is­land ne­go­tia­tors by blend­ing con­cern with hu­mil­ity. “Through the ups and downs of the ne­go­ti­a­tions, he has been a steady rock,” Van Lierup said. Ma­jeed, now Min­is­ter of State for En­vi­ron­ment and En­ergy, said he had first be­come in­ter­ested in the weather as a child when his fa­ther had been un­able to an­swer the ques­tion “How do you mea­sure rain­fall?”.

Del­e­gates of­ten jok­ingly liken the ne­go­ti­a­tions to herd­ing cats. Just like AOSIS, now grown to 44 mem­bers, the United States, China, African na­tions, OPEC oil pro­duc­ers or left-wing Latin Amer­i­can states all have of­ten-com­pet­ing na­tional in­ter­ests. OPEC na­tions, for in­stance, im­me­di­ately re­al­ized that any shift to wind and so­lar power was a threat to oil ex­ports. At cli­mate talks in the early 1990s, “half of the OPEC del­e­gates were lawyers”, Ma­jeed said. It was not un­til 1992 that a UN cli­mate con­ven­tion in Rio de Janeiro fi­nally set a goal of lim­it­ing green­house emis­sions to 1990 lev­els by 2000, al­beit only for de­vel­oped economies. But the goal was non-bind­ing, and was not met.

Af­ter a grind of un­pro­duc­tive an­nual UN meet­ings, the next ac­cord was the UN’s 1997 Ky­oto Pro­to­col, which ini­tially obliged about 40 rich na­tions to cut green­house gas emis­sions by about 5 per­cent be­low 1990 lev­els in the pe­riod 2008-12. Those cuts have been met over­all, but Ky­oto had fa­tal flaws, and the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants in an ex­tended pe­riod to 2020 has shrunk to a small core around the Euro­pean Union. US Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush con­cluded that Ky­oto was giv­ing big emerg­ing economies such as China and In­dia a free ride, and would cost US jobs. Hav­ing signed the deal, Wash­ing­ton never rat­i­fied it.

“It was a very mi­nor step in the right di­rec­tion,” Ma­jeed said, re­mem­ber­ing that his del­e­ga­tion had to leave be­fore the agree­ment was reached, in over­time, to avoid miss­ing their ex­pen­sive flight home. One of the low­est points was a two-week meet­ing in Buenos Aires in 2004, which ended with an agree­ment merely to hold a sem­i­nar about cli­mate change the fol­low­ing year. To some, given the U.S. op­po­si­tion to Ky­oto, even that was a vic­tory. “At the time, I was very happy to get this work­shop,” said Yvo de Boer, the UN cli­mate chief from 2006-10 who was a se­nior mem­ber of the Dutch del­e­ga­tion in Buenos Aires.

World econ­omy

He says the core prob­lem is that cli­mate change ul­ti­mately means trans­form­ing the world econ­omy. Crops will have to be re­placed or planted else­where, for in­stance, in­dus­try will have to find new ways of work­ing with­out fos­sil fu­els, and low-ly­ing coun­tries may one day have to move whole cities. “If it was just about cut­ting emis­sions, it would be much eas­ier,” said de Boer, who now heads the Global Green Growth In­sti­tute in South Korea. Ma­jeed said the pace picked up in Bali in 2007, when na­tions agreed to work out a global ac­cord to suc­ceed Ky­oto within two years. Wash­ing­ton dropped its op­po­si­tion at a stormy fi­nal ses­sion dur­ing which US del­e­gates were booed.

But the 2009 Copen­hagen sum­mit failed, with only a par­tial ac­cord for emis­sions cuts un­til 2020 and a prom­ise to mo­bi­lize $100 bil­lion a year in cli­mate fi­nance for de­vel­op­ing na­tions by 2020. By last year, about $62 bil­lion had been amassed. Ma­jeed says Copen­hagen was the worst meet­ing: “Peo­ple started with such op­ti­mism, and it ended with such doom.” Prospects for a global ac­cord are now brighter, partly be­cause the United States and China are work­ing to­gether. But am­bi­tions are also lower: a Paris ac­cord will com­pile vol­un­tary na­tional pledges for ac­tion be­yond 2020, for­sak­ing the bind­ing model of Ky­oto.

In Male, Ma­jeed lives in a house that is about 2 me­ters above sea level and 50 me­ters from the wa­ter­front. He grum­bles that there are few beaches, be­cause of the sea de­fenses that oc­cupy much of the cap­i­tal’s coast. Af­ter the Paris talks, set to take place un­der height­ened se­cu­rity af­ter the at­tacks that killed 129 peo­ple last week, he reck­ons he may stay with cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions for an­other five years. “No­body likes trav­el­ling to so many places,” he said. “We all have fam­i­lies too.” Ma­jeed has four daugh­ters. Asked why he has stayed on so long when many oth­ers have given up, he shrugs: “I’ve got cli­mate in my veins.” — Reuters

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