Why have we waited so long to address climate change?

by Robert F. Van Lierop
Thursday, 10 December 2015 20:21 GMT

Kaibakia Pinata wades into the water as his relative Piri Sela watches from Bikeman Islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati May 25, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Small island and coastal residents will be the first to face climate impacts - but not the last

This week, the eyes of the world are on one of the most important international gatherings in the history of mankind.

Some will call it the successful culmination of a long and difficult process of negotiating a legally binding international set of climate change commitments that will save the planet, and assure the future of our children, and their children to come, by finally addressing in a meaningful manner how to mitigate, and adapt, to the adverse consequences of human induced climate change in every corner of the globe.

Others will be skeptical, however. They may well wonder, what has taken so long, and whether it is too late to save all of the people, the lands, and the cultures at risk from what many know is not only inevitable, but is actually occurring now, and has been occurring (gradually at first, but increasingly at an accelerated pace) since the dawn of the industrial revolution - the history making epoch that has forever altered the fate of the human species, and all other forms of life on this planet.

The inhabitants of small island, and low lying coastal states, and coastal inhabitants of larger states (even in developed countries) will be the first to face the ultimate onslaught of the adverse consequences of human-induced climate change, but they will most certainly not be the last.

Even those whose entire country, and history are not washed away by rising sea levels will be adversely affected, as clean fresh water, food, and shelter will be put at risk. What we don't know is how quickly will the fabric of modern fossil-fueled society unravel. It will, most likely, be faster (maybe even far faster) than most expect, and climate scientists, with their rather conservative models, have predicted.

One event, perhaps the melting of the polar ice cap, or the ice caps in the Andes or the Himalayas could unleash a chain reaction that would trigger other adverse consequences.

Anyone reading these words, or others with a similar tone, may well be justified in asking, "why bother then?" Why go to Paris at all at this stage, particularly when going and coming will not itself be a carbon neutral journey, nor will a stay in the legendary "city of light"? The answer, of course, is that we must continue to make every effort we can, nurturing every hope we can. That is human nature.

 In particular, we must continue our efforts at mitigation, while also accelerating our efforts to help those who are, even today, in harm's way…help them with accelerated, and more equitably focused efforts at adaptation.

How did we come to this state of affairs? How did the world come to wait until December of 2015 to finally take the relatively small step that those who studied the problem, and those who inhabited the most vulnerable lands, always knew would have to be taken were we, humankind, and others, to have a fighting chance to survive?

 For decades a number of voices could be heard, if those with the power willing to listen. Those voices urged immediate and focused action be taken decades ago.

The distinguished President of the Maldives, H.E. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and the late former Minister of the Environment of Trinidad and Tobago, H.E Lincoln Myers, were such strong advocates for the survival of the world's small island states that they inspired what became the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which debuted as an effective informal coalition of states with a common interest, common outlook, and common positions at the first session of the International Negotiating Committee on Climate Change (INCCC), held in Chantilly, Virginia in early 1991.

Through the cohesion, and disciplined approach of the delegates from those small island countries, and their consistent advocacy, most of their then-immediate goals were achieved barely 16 months later with the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This was accomplished with the considerable goodwill and support of their many friends and allies in the G77 and China, under the outstanding chairmanship of H.E. Jamsheed Marker, the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the U.N., with strong support from, among others, Brazil, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Cuba (which joined AOSIS), and the African Group, as well as a number of developed countries including Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union.

What was most remarkable was that all of this was achieved under difficult circumstances, and in record time for the negotiation of such an important convention on such a complex subject.

It was not a perfect outcome (if any international negotiation can ever arrive at a "perfect" outcome), but it was the one that was achievable, and would allow the advocacy of AOSIS, and it's many, many friends and allies to continue, to continue, and to continue.

NGOs were drawn to AOSIS, and it's substantive positions, and encouraged to lend their open support. A number of non independent territories also saw it in their interests to affiliate themselves with AOSIS, and by the time of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in June 1992, in Rio de Janiero, AOSIS was already recognized as a very important factor in any number of international negotiating processes. Indeed at the UNCED, Brazil, as the host country facilitated a request from AOSIS that it be allowed facilities to hold its first summit meeting on the margins of the Conference in Rio.

From there AOSIS took on more and more issues, expanding its horizons in the process. Decisions were made to ask AOSIS delegations to be represented at the highest levels practical, and to take measures to assure continuity of negotiators, and maximum capacity to effectively coordinate common positions.

Nonetheless, those who had their own reasons for standing in the way of further progress in the ongoing negotiations were not easily dissuaded from doing so, which was to be expected. The science was clear, but too often negotiators, all negotiators failed to go beyond the diplomacy of the negotiations, and reach out, as then U.S. Senator Al Gore once suggested at a private meeting with AOSIS, beyond the diplomats and engage the artists, farmers, artisans, and everyday people of their respective countries as advocates for their survival. A plan was then formulated to reach across borders and build alliances with people across a broad spectrum of the developed countries, people who would be essential if we were to move the "goal posts" of the negotiations. This was never going to be an easy task, but it was an essential task

It is still not too late to act on this approach. The vision is there. It will take some strategizing, analysis of what is possible, and where it is possible. It will then take the political will to "seize the time" and act with courage, conviction, and purpose. AOSIS now stands poised on the threshold of perhaps its greatest successes. All is possible!

A Luta Continua!

Ambassador Robert F. Van Lierop, former permanent representative to the United Nations for Vanuatu, was the founding chair of AOSIS.