March 21, 2016

Pacific nations lead the way on Paris climate accord

Battered by massive cyclones, El NiƱo-fuelled drought and swollen king tides, fragile Pacific island nations vulnerable to climate change are leading the charge in implementing the landmark Paris climate deal.

The Marshall Islands is the latest Pacific nation after Fiji and Palau to adopt the historic deal which was agreed by 195 nations in December with the aim of curbing carbon emissions and limiting global warming.

Scientists warn the low-lying island nations risk being swamped as sea levels rise, losing coastline, arable land and facing more extreme weather events.

Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine said this vulnerability explained why the first three nations to confirm their Paris commitments were all from the Pacific.

“By becoming one of the first countries to ratify the Paris agreement, we have shown our determination to continue to lead this fight from the front,” she said after parliament ratified the Paris accord Friday.

The accord sets a target of limiting global warming to “well below” 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels.

World leaders will gather in New York on April 22 to formally sign the deal in an important statement of intent.

However, ratification goes a step further, involving lawmakers agreeing on action plans that will take concrete steps to address the problem.

The Pacific nations, among the strongest advocates for meaningful action in Paris, have been swift to ratify in the hope of setting an example for bigger nations.

“(It) puts us closer to the goal we all set for (the) nation and ourselves to ensure that our children inherit a habitable, hospitable planet,” Palau President Tommy Remengesau said when parliament voted to ratify last month.

The Marshalls’ ratification comes as the nation of about 55,000 people faces a severe drought that prompted Heine, elected in January, to declare a state of disaster last month.

With almost no rainfall in the capital Majuro for months, tap water is rationed to four-hour blocks three days a week, when residents scramble to fill storage tanks and bottles.

The government has sent portable desalination units to remote communities as forecasters predict the drought may not ease until the second half of the year.

The Marshalls’ latest climate crisis follows extreme weather in recent years, including ferocious storms, and in 2014 the highest king tides recorded in three decades, which forced 1,000 to flee their homes and left more than US$2.0 million worth of damage.

In Fiji, the urgency of the situation was underlined when super-cyclone Winston hit just days after the country ratified the Paris agreement last month.

The storm hammered the island nation, leaving 44 dead and about 50,000 homeless amid a trail of destruction.

Palau — another ratification trailblazer — is in the grip of severe drought that has seen water rationing introduced after levels at the main dam servicing the capital Koror fell 90 percent.

These harsh climate realities have fuelled a push to ensure the Paris accord becomes more than just a deal on paper.

“The Marshall Islands wants to lead by walking the talk,” Heine said.

She is planning to implement a US$22 million solar project to produce renewable energy and has appointed former foreign minister Tony de Brum as the country’s first climate change ambassador.

De Brum helped forge a coalition of vulnerable African, Caribbean and Pacific nations at the Paris talks and Heine said he would be looking to form similar alliances next month.

“The Marshall Islands intends to call the coalition together again in the margins of the United Nations signing ceremony in New York next month,” she said.