It takes 1.5 to tango

The Pacific Islands Forum has once again demonstrated that it cannot represent the interests of both the developing and the developed world. The climate change ‘commitment’ in final PIF communiqué was watered down (sorry) from supporting a limit of 1.5 degrees average global temperature rise to ‘1.5 or 2’ degrees.

If there were any lingering doubts about whose Forum this really is, they’ve now been put to rest. It’s time the real island states in the Forum either send Australia and New Zealand packing or find another grouping that is willing at least to allow them their own voice.

This is no longer a matter of principle; it’s a matter of survival.

Our front page yesterday featured a story about a two year-old Tannese girl who died, in part because of the after-effects of cyclone Pam and the ongoing El Nino-induced drought. She and her fellow villagers were reduced to eating Nipatem, a local vine. It grows as a weed in gardens, but when boiled it is sweet to chew. It’s of very limited nutritive value; the fibre has to be chewed, then spit out, somewhat like sugarcane.

Students and staff at Tongoa’s Nambangasale School have no choice now but to walk all the way down to the seashore every day to wash. There’s only barely enough water to drink. Nearby Tongariki is even worse off. It has no streams or rivers. The water tank at Craig Cove is dry.

Private charities like WITA Aid are doing what they can to mitigate water shortages in the Shepherds group. And while CARE, Save the Children, UNICEF, Oxfam and others do their best to address both safe access to water & sanitation and food security, they are ultimately hamstrung when privileged nations refuse the play their part.

In the absence of global action, all they can do is offer comfort to a dying planet.

Haggling over half a degree may seem like a small thing, until you realise that the goal of 1.5 degrees is already a bitter compromise. It represents acceptance that the world simply cannot move faster on climate.

But there’s very little room to manoeuvre. On the Carbon Brief website, climate scientist Anders Levermann states bluntly, “At three degrees warming, Greenland is going to vanish and corals are going to be largely extinct….”

Two degrees is the absolute outside limit. Past that, we can’t expect to survive without major changes to the world we inhabit. One degree is probably impossible now. That’s why 1.5 degrees has to be the peg we hang our hopes on at the Paris climate conference in December.

If we know anything about the world and about international agreements, it’s that we seldom meet them, that there’s always someone willing to sidle a little closer to the precipice. If we don’t set a strong target of less than 2 degrees, we haven’t a prayer of staying off the slippery slope.

Somewhere between 2 and 3 degrees global temperature rise, we enter a situation in which things spiral out of control. Small island states won’t be the only ones to suffer; they’ll merely be the first.

Therefore, to say, as NZ Prime Minister John Key did, that “we’re all going to Paris; we’re all going to argue different things” is more than disappointing. It’s a dereliction of the duty of care toward small island states that New Zealand has traditionally upheld.

Walking into the Paris climate conference with a 2-degree goal could well be suicidal for small island states. Now that Australia and New Zealand have refused to recognise this—or care about it—it’s clear that our increasingly desert islands are also being deserted.