:: by Safiya Sawney ::
At the end of the 2015, within a large conference room in Paris-Le Bourget in the city of Paris, several thousand persons representing governments both large and small, developed and developing, from all nooks and crevices of the globe will huddle together separated by categories like “LDCs (least developed countries)”, “AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States)” “G77 & China”, “Umbrella Group” and themes like “loss and damage” “climate finance”, “adaptation” and “long-term emission standards”.
Unbeknownst to some of you (perhaps most) these persons have been, for the last 20+ years, appointed to progressively decide your fate, as well as, the fate of the entire world. From tumultuous climate change COP (Conference of Parties) to tumultuous COP, from Bali, to Copenhagen, to Cancun, to Durban, these climate change negotiators, these deciders of our fate, have fought, screamed, quibbled, agreed, disagreed, shook hands, achieved consensus, forged compromise, going from Spartan to diplomat in a matter of seconds, almost in an elaborate territorial ritual one would expect in an immensely diverse natural ecosystem limited by space. All this – to save the world from the impending impacts of having too much of a good thing.
By 2020, there would be enough carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases baked into the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere to cause a rise in global temperature of 2+ degrees Celsius. With a residence time of up to approximately 200 years, any carbon dioxide that’s released right now, as you drive your car, or turn on your AC or charge your phone using an energy source derived of fossil fuels will stay in the Earth’s upper layer for a period roughly equivalent to three of your lifetimes. Its impacts won’t be felt by you, but by your great grandchildren.
Under a month ago, the tropical storm, Erika, silenced the Caribbean island of Dominica. Raging waters from the overflow of many, if not all, of Dominica’s 365 rivers unused to handling such large volumes of water from precipitation, all at once, cut through Dominica’s fragile infrastructure, carving through roads, demolishing homes and uprooting important telecommunication structures. As if wanting to show just how powerful she was, she resorted to wiping out whole families, all at once, without warning. The sudden presence of a rapidly flowing, destructible and non prejudice above-ground river produced by a temperature fed tropical depression should not come as a surprise to those entrusted to decide our fate. For in taking this long to agree on an effective enough strategy to phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and provide compensation and technical tools to adapt vulnerable societies to the projected impacts of global temperature rise, they’ve decided that small islands, for now, do not matter. Dominica is our present and our future as small islanders of the globe and West Indians. This is not a case of tropical depressions and hurricanes only now causing widespread destruction, as we all know that hurricane disasters have dotted our Caribbean history. It’s a case of this destructive natural phenomenon becoming much more intense and destructive as a result of the world’s manic and aggressive dependence on using fossil fuels to satisfy our ravishing energy needs. The impacts felt by the people of Dominica is directly due to carbon dioxide released by our industrialized neighbors from decades ago. This is the terrible trick of too much carbon dioxide. Its effects are maliciously delayed.
But you’ve seen it small islander. I don’t have to tell you about the coastlines that are falling into the ocean faster than we are accustomed to. Or the heavier than usual rainfall resulting in sporadic flooding and erosion, sometimes blocking your ability to get to work or get back home. You know that the drought that you feel now isn’t the same as it used to be. The grounds crack even deeper and the heat stays even longer. You know that the seasons are just as confused as you are as to why they aren’t on schedule and the fish, you know, wish they could tell you as you catch them and throw them into your wooden boat to earn an income, to keep them in the ocean just a little bit longer. Our corals are losing their ability to effectively maintain the fishing industry that your grandfather raised your family on and the crops they complain because they aren’t used to the pest and disease that comes with extreme weather conditions. This is your reality. Preservation is impossible without adaptation. Poverty will endure if solutions are not presented. Climate change is our future as small islanders and it is the responsibility of the deciders of our fate, these climate change negotiators, to realize that we will not be climate change refugees or continue to stand by as fellow Caribbean nations, such as Haiti, are forced into vulnerable & dependent economic situations.
Science says that we should avoid a scenario where global warming advances the 2-degree mark because the impacts will be too much to avoid or to reverse. For now, based on the unconditional policies and pledges made by international governments we are on pace to limit global warming to 2.9 – 3.1 degrees Celsius. Both policymakers and scientists agree that a 2 degree C limit is still “technically and economically feasible. Science has given us a deadline. If we are unable to successfully phase out our use of fossil fuels by 2100, then we will ultimately decide our fate as a species. Post 2100, the Earth will not be habitable for most of the species that exist now, including us.
And so, this is why in Paris these deciders of our fate, our climate change negotiators, will have no choice but to agree on a way for the world to avoid an early end. In fact, they are hoping that they can finally achieve the development of some sort of system that allows for equity between developing (those that are less industrialized) and developed countries (those who’ve already taken advantage of the economic benefits of industrializing), taking into account the dire need to maintain global economic and biological significance. The question of equity is where contention exists and why it has taken the deciders this long to finally respond to this “nifty” problem of saving the world.
The truth is time is no longer on our side. In Paris, whether the international framework that governs the management of global warming is legally binding or not, agreed to or not, the world will have to respond (individually or regionally) anyway. The world will need to adapt to the impacts that we will no doubt feel from past emissions and all countries – both developed and developing will need to transition their economies and societies to one that is climate resilient, low emission and sustainable. Vulnerable countries will all need to preserve their cultural, societal and economic survival, small islands included. We do not have a choice in this matter.
The concept of sustainable development came about in 1987 in response to the need to conserve the globe’s natural resources for future generations as matter of equity and of course, in support of the survival of our species. Working towards achieving an international framework that ensures climate change mitigation goes hand in hand with achieving sustainable development. One cannot exist without the other.
Indeed, for every one of those persons who will meet in Paris at the end of the year, and for us small islanders who have suffered the skewed wrath of climate change, there is only one thing on our minds – not that perhaps we will create one of the most historic pieces of international legislation in existence. No for us, it will be the termination of the territorial ritual. This drawn out dance of sorts will finally have an end and we can go back to regular life, drive our cars, turn on our ACs and charge our phones, hopefully within the context of the new and effective climate friendly policies we have toiled so hard to create leaving behind the destruction and tragedy of the Dominicas of our past, open to the hope that policy translates into implementation and implementation into sustainable change.
We can return home knowing that perhaps we can hang up our global warming coats and toss the climate change label into the non-recyclables box. We can perhaps sleep well knowing that the fate we’ve decided isn’t one that has derided the world of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. In fact, perhaps the fate that we decided in Paris in 2015 gave the vulnerable a fighting chance.
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Safiya Sawney is Policy Associate to Managing Director of Climate Analytics Inc. (New York). She provides policy and technical support on climate finance, climate strategies and readiness activities in the Caribbean. She has extensive experience in conservation and climate change policy initiatives for Caribbean SIDS.
Prior to Climate Analytics, Safiya worked on marine conservation and climate change policy in the Caribbean region. She was the deputy coordinator for the team that developed and executed the 2013 Caribbean Challenge Initiative (CCI) Summit of Business and Political Leaders in collaboration with the Government of Grenada, Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Unite and The Nature Conservancy. The CCI Summit raised over $50 million for marine conservation, helped to institute the regional Caribbean Biodiversity Fund financing mechanism and establish a regional CCI Secretariat in the island of Grenada (where she served as its first coordinator). Safiya also provides voluntary technical assistance and support to community conservation projects on the island of Grenada through her online conservation campaign Conservation Trekkers.
Safiya holds a Master of Public Administration degree in Environmental Science and Policy from the School of International and Public Administration at Columbia University and a Bachelors degree in Marine Science from Eckerd College. As an undergraduate, Safiya completed 4 National Science Foundation funded research projects on coral bleaching and water quality analysis and was inducted into the Sigma XI research society. Twitter @ConTrekk