The Guardian June 20, 2001


Sailing off the face of the earth

by Cleo Paskal

The Pacific island nations of Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga have a combined 
population of about 190,000. Recently, while you weren't looking, they all 
joined the United Nations. It is no wonder you missed the news.

When the UN press office recommended they hold a press conference 
announcing their official entry into the global community, the delegations 
replied something to the effect of, "Thank you for the suggestion but, er, 
we're a bit shy". These are not normal politicians. But they weren't 
joining the UN for normal reasons.

All three of the countries are in imminent danger of disappearing. Climate 
change is causing waters to rise, protective reefs to die and storms to 
become more frequent and serious. Already, entire islands have been 
submerged, fresh water supplies have been infiltrated by salt water and 
weird weather has destroyed crops.

And it is not just Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga. Recently, they joined about 
40 other members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) for a 
Special Session the UN convened to examine the state of the world's tiniest 
and most vulnerable nations. Delegates came from places as far-flung as the 
Marshall Islands and Sao Tome and Principe.

For two days, places you didn't even know existed took centre stage. 
Barbados described how one recent hurricane caused around 100 coffins to 
float out of a coastal cemetery.

Last year, in the Maldives and Seychelles, nearly half of all the coral 
reefs, some over 1,000 years old, died from high water temperatures. 
Meanwhile, Mauritius experienced its worst drought in recorded history.

But the members of AOSIS were not at the UN to complain. They were there to 
try to find answers. One of their main problems is global warming caused by 
the relentless increase in greenhouse gases. Add that to worldwide logging, 
which is decreasing carbon dioxide-absorbing forests and you get a very bad 
situation made appalling. Recent El Nino years compound an already 
intolerable situation.

The small counties themselves are doing their best. They are always among 
the first to sign international pollution-control treaties, such as the 
Kyoto Protocol. Many are exploring alternative power sources, such as solar 
or wave energy. Some are trying out promising, exciting artificial reef-
building technology. And almost all have enacted serious environmental 
legislation.

While larger countries bicker and posture over details (or, in the case of 
the United States, go back on promises), the members of AOSIS get on with 
trying to save the world.

During the UN Special Session, two three-hour chunks were put aside for 
AOSIS to agree on the wording of a statement.

Old UN hands thought six hours might be enough, although other meetings of 
this kind have dragged on into the early morning hours. AOSIS got the job 
done in about an hour and then broke early for dinner. These are not normal 
politicians.

And their requests to the international community weren't the normal, bland 
bleating, either. Yes, there were the expected calls for the cutting (or at 
least stabilising) of CO2 emissions. And they pleaded that countries like 
Japan not ship hazardous waste through their waters.

But Palau upped the ante by asking that energy prices be raised to 
accurately reflect the (in-part environmental) true cost of fossil fuel 
use.

Mauritius argued that it was unfair to expect them to submit to World Trade 
Organisation rules since the rules were made without their input. It would 
be like a school bully saying: "The rule today is, you give me all your 
money. And if you don't abide by the rule, I'll punish you by taking all 
your money in fines".

And St Lucia questioned the entire nature of the globalised economy.

They talked with candour and urgency not of people who had nothing to lose, 
but of people who had everything to lose.

Small islands are often called the "canaries in the coal mines" on 
environmental issues. But the point of the coal miner's canary was that, 
when the canary started to die, the miner had a limited amount of time to 
hightail it out of the mine.

Well, the canaries are dying but there is nowhere for us to run. If waters 
rise high enough to submerge the Maldives, you can say good-bye to much of 
Bangladesh and Mississippi (though, perhaps, this is what George W Bush, 
the US President is hoping for by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol; natural 
disasters may not be good for people but they are certainly good for 
business). If the temperature gets much higher, there is risk of widespread 
crop failure in Central Asia.

The cries of the small island states are not the normal, dull political 
speeches. But these are not normal times. If only our politicians were more 
abnormal.

* * *
Pacific News Bulletin, May 2001 (National Post, April 2001)

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