One of the most frequent questions I am asked at the international climate negotiations goes along these lines: “How do you remain positive when you, a citizen and representative of a small Pacific island that could well become uninhabitable due to climate change, again and again face delays at the very talks meant to save you?”
The truth is, with reports from Nauru about water supplies running low, coastal areas washing away, and the sea rising, I fear for what my life and the lives of children from our region may be.
But, just when the reasons to despair stare me imposingly in the face, and the urge to give up swells inside me, I seek the presence of people of conscience, and I feel around me the optimism of youth, with its stubborn refusal to accept a fate forced upon it.
Last Friday I had one of those moments. I was honoured to join Ambassadors Dessima Williams of Grenada and Ronald Jumeau of the Seychelles at the “Rally for Survival” outside the UNFCCC climate talks being held here in Durban, South Africa.
We are representatives from island countries of the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific regions, which comprise the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and our people are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The crowd reflected the world’s diversity and goodness. A New Zealander, Senegalese and Vermonter warmly greeted us and explained that, since there were no microphones, our words would be repeated for all to hear.
So human amplification echoed each sentence from our lips to the ears of the Indian, English, South African, Bolivian, Spanish, American, Australian, French, Brazilian, Chinese and all the others in the crowd and back to us again. I thought that maybe by repeating them again here, and sharing photographs and video, you might too feel what we felt. ‘WE ARE ALL SMALL ISLANDERS’
Ambassador Williams began by telling the audience: “It is so wonderful to be surrounded by our friends in civil society. You are the conscience of these negotiations and we thank you for your steadfast resolve and support. It inspires us.”
I added: “We thank each and every one of you here today for being our conscience, and we’ll continue to be your voice inside those halls and the negotiating rooms… I want to thank you for your steadfastness, for your conscience and for your conviction… It gives us conviction.”
And Ambassador Jumeau followed on: “You have heard the message from the islands: from the Caribbean, from the Pacific, and I come from the Indian Ocean. The same message applies to the port city of Durban. If we go under, Durban goes under… During COP 17 we are all small islanders. So don’t save us. Save yourselves.”
This gathering – this Conference of People – reflects the increasingly rare and precious dialogue at these climate negotiations that keeps hope alive. It is the opposite of pessimism and the antidote to cynicism. It is the most important conversation in the world.
If there is one thing I know, influential voices here will tell us not to raise our expectations too high. They will tell us to be reasonable, given the current economic and political contexts. The temptation will be great to take the advice, in the hope we might get something better in the future, or the fear that it is the best we will get today.
But life is characterised by uncertainty. There is no guaranteeing that economic and political conditions will be any more conducive to an agreement five or ten years from now than they are today. Indeed, given the worsening impacts of climate change, things could very well get worse.
The truth is that, unless things change quickly, we will in all likelihood bequeath the next generation a world with many more droughts and famines and floods, and fewer rainforests, coral reefs and cultures.
In light of this reality, we should never be ashamed to demand what is required for our survival. The science again and again points to the same number: 350 parts per million, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is consistent with keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees and that gives us a realistic chance at survival.
It is the responsibility of the leaders at these talks to be guided by the best available science and the principles of the Convention to which we have all agreed and, as the rally so poignantly reminds us, it is the responsibility of people of conscience to accept nothing less.
Ambassador Marlene Moses is the permanent representative to the United Nations for the Republic of Nauru and Chair of the Pacific Small Island Developing States. Next year she will Chair the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).