COP21 : where do we go after Paris?

We should celebrate the many successes of the last year: Shell pulling out of the Arctic, fracking in the US and the UK blocked in many places; the increasing influence of land rights groups in protecting their lands; the collapse of oil prices as a major deterrent to exploration in environmentally fragile land and seascapes. The cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline was a huge blow to tar sands interests. Also noteworthy is the growing divestment campaign which has seen billions of dollars wiped out from fossil fuel companies’ investment funds. While more symbolic than painful, the huge publicity attached these actions has had substantial psychological impact on investors. The climate itself has become the news – breaking record after extreme temperature record and getting front page coverage.

These events combined with the enormous increase in investments in renewable energy made 2015 a banner year for climate change action. The COP21 was more symbolic than real in the sense that that it was all about promises made under the intense pressures exerted in Parties. Promises are a great start because they define an intention. But they do not guarantee a result.  Many’s the slip betwixt cup and lip.

While a certain amount of congratulatory warmth is warranted after Paris, we should pause to consider what did not get done.  The most flagrant continuing scandal is the subsidies provided to the fossil fuel companies.  The realisation that governments have for decades deliberately subsidized companies that pollute the environment and hasten climate change beggars belief. How can this possibly be allowed to continue? History will judge harshly governments that protect their business sponsors while ignoring the environmental impacts of the external costs of their policies.  No-one in Paris seems to have seriously raised this issue. Then there is the urgent necessity of a tax on carbon so that the full cost of the damage done by the burning of fossil fuels is borne by those that cause the damage and not by those that suffer the consequences.

Subsidies for renewable energy technologies have to some extent levelled the playing field, but these are everywhere under attack by the lackeys of the fossil fuel companies who fight to maintain their position and undermine the emerging renewable energy technologies. This is a global struggle for control of the way energy is produced and delivered. The paradigm shift that is underway will be fought against tooth and nail by those that will lose influence, money, and power. The frontline troops in this battle against change are the oil and coal companies. They have enormous resources at their disposal. They don’t play by any rules. It is a no-holds-barred struggle for survival. The writing on the wall says that their days are numbered, but who looks at the wall when you are checking your Iphone to see if your favorite politician is available for lunch?

As we head farther into the new year, it is a good time to reflect on where we stand with respect to climate change. The ‘we’ is that sentence covers a lot of ground. The discussion on most websites tends to see the situation through a series of filters: the mitigation proposals and adaptation measures are presented mainly in terms of the effects on the larger more industrialized countries. These are the countries most likely to survive relatively intact: they have the resources to resist rising sea levels and to recover from extreme weather. They will invest huge amounts of money in renewable energy, they will produce fresh water from sea water, and finding new ways to grow food in areas where drought is increasingly common and where higher temperatures will reduce yields. In short, they will survive. Behind sea walls. In shelters. Anything solid that will resist at least for a time the force of a changing climate.

But out there on planet Earth there are dozens of small countries that are not so well endowed, not so well prepared, and not so lucky. These are the small island countries: surrounded by the oceans that until now have always protected and nurtured them. At the last count 51 of them. Almost all of them lie within the tropics. All of them are threatened by the changing climate. All of them will suffer hardship and pain. Many will not survive: they will be overpowered by the oceans and battered insensate by storms and extreme weather.

Many of the governments of the small island developing states (known as the SIDS) know that their future is precarious. Most of the islands are small, isolated, and stand only a few meters above sea level.

Faced with these threats, many islanders are obviously contemplating moving to higher ground, particularly in the Pacific, where sea level rise has been four times higher than the global average. It is clear that on many Pacific islands low-lying coastal lands will eventually be swamped.

In the Solomon Islands, the town of Taro is to be relocated to higher ground on an adjacent island. Dozens of vilages on Fiji will be moved, and 2000 people from the Cateret atoll on Papua New Guinea are likely to be moved to mainland Bouganvillea.

In 2014, the Kiribati government bought 20 km2 of land on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji islands in case its people cannot be moved internally. Kiribati has a policy called “migration with dignity” if its cluster of 33 corall atolls becomes uninhabitable.

In Fiji, dozens of villages will be moved and 2000 people from the Cartert atoll of Paua New Guinea will be moved to mainland Bougainville. And in the Maldive islands, it is planned that the Malé commercial port will be moved to another island: Thilafushi, an island that is reckoned to be better protected against sea level rise.

What we are witnessing here is the slow start of a global migration phenomena that will only intensify: the UNHCR is estimating that climate change could force the displacement of more than 200 million people over the next 30 years. This is a global movement of people unprecedented in human history.



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