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No. 2 May 1996
[Past issues of the Quarterly become available online approximately 12 months after their
appearance in print.
The island countries of the Pacific have long fired the imagination of the rest of the world, beginning with the reports of the voyages of early European mariners in the 16th century. Tantalised further by the detailed accounts of Captain James Cook in the late 18th century and the Tahitian masterpieces of the French impressionist Gaugin, Europeans and later the inhabitants of the New World came to view the Pacific as the ultimate earthly paradise. Throughout the world today, the allure of tropical islands persists.
While the citizens of Pacific Island countries are fully aware of this precious birthright, they are equally familiar with the more sombre side of their paradise - the fragility of their island countries, the vulnerability to natural forces, the narrowness of the economic base, and in some cases the difficulty of simply sustaining life on a tiny coral atoll in the middle of a vast ocean.
By far the greatest environmental threat to all island countries arises from global climate change. Global warming from the introduction of carbon dioxide and other 'greenhouse gases' into the atmosphere is predicted to warm the earth by an average of two to four degrees Celsius over the next century, with substantially increased warming at higher latitudes and at the poles. The warming will also melt some of the polar ice and expand the volume of water of the world's oceans accordingly, thereby causing an historically rapid sea-level rise.
Relatively conservative scientific predictions include a rise in sea level of a metre or more over the next century. With some island countries being little more than a metre above the existing sea level, even the smallest rise is a potential threat to their survival. The modest rise in sea level that is accepted in the scientific community will inundate at least four low-lying Pacific island countries, and damage many more.
Global warming and rapid sea level rise will make all island countries less habitable because of increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms, heightened storm surge risk, and the disruption of limited fresh water supplies as the rising sea intrudes into fresh ground water that is the principal reservoir for many island countries. Warming of sea water by even a few degrees may disrupt some shallow-water corals that contribute to the biological basis of tropical fisheries, threatening to reduce the already narrow economic base of island countries.
This vulnerability, shared by island countries around the world, has stimulated one of the potentially most important developments in international environmental diplomacy of the decade, namely the formation of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). AOSIS was established in 1990 during the Second World Climate Conference in Geneva and has since played a central role in shaping international policy on climate change.
The 36 countries that comprise AOSIS include, in the Pacific Ocean: Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Western Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu; in the Caribbean: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago; in the Atlantic Ocean: Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe; in the Indian Ocean: Comoros, Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles; in the Mediterranean: Cyprus, and Malta; and Singapore in the South China Sea. AOSIS observers include American Samoa, Guam, the Netherlands Antilles, Niue, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Though they differ vastly in their cultural heritage, languages and economic bases, AOSIS members share a common vulnerability to climate change. It is therefore not surprising that the founding principles of AOSIS pertain specifically to climate policy.
The most important of these AOSIS principles is a commitment to a global reduction in the emission of the greenhouse gases that are affecting the climate, particularly carbon dioxide that is emitted by the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas. AOSIS countries have p[layed little role in the production of these gases that now threaten their survival. Global warming induced primarily by developed countries is a classic case of economic negative externalities; AOSIS countries have received but a small fraction of the benefit of fossil fuel use by industrialised countries, and yet many are now confronted with the ultimate cost - their physical and cultural survival.
The history of AOSIS during its first six years is closely interwoven with climate policy, and particularly the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the 'Climate Convention'). Negotiated on the basis of a UN General Assembly Resolution adopted in 1989, the Climate Convention was fashioned in six intensive, two-week negotiating sessions in the 14 months leading up to the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where it was opened for signature.
AOSIS played a key role in these negotiations, often strongly supported by the UN coalition of more than 100 developing countries known as the Group of 77 and China. Based on its six founding principles, and driven by self-preservation and an acute sense of injustice, AOSIS has significantly influenced the Climate Convention despite the limited economic and political clout of its individual member states.
AOSIS countries worked intensively, for example, to achieve the wording of the Objective of the Climate Convention, namely to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at levels that would not present a danger to the global climate system. Toward this end, AOSIS submitted a draft protocol to the first Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention held in Berlin in April of 1995. This protocol would place developed countries on a trajectory of decreasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by establishing the goal of a 20 percent reduction by the year 2005. The AOSIS protocol, as it is now called, has become a centrepiece of continued international negotiations on climate policy known as 'the Berlin Mandate'.
Despite striking economic, political and cultural differences between the island countries that comprise AOSIS, these small and relatively powerless developing states have managed to exert a profound and continuing impact on global climate policy. Much of this success can be attributed to the sense of unity which has developed between the member states. Such unity has been achieved despite profound differences between AOSIS members: some AOSIS states are relatively prosperous tourist meccas, while others are undeveloped outposts unknown to most of the world; some AOSIS countries are sophisticated, modern sites of ancient civilisations, while others are dispersed atoll communities that depend for survival on subsistence fishing; most AOSIS countries import energy, while still others are refiners or producers of petroleum.
Political systems of AOSIS states are similarly diverse, ranging from the remnants of communism through monarchies, traditional indigenous organisation, parliamentary systems, blends of indigenous and parliamentary systems, democracy, and socialism. And many AOSIS countries are deeply heterogeneous even within their own borders - Papua New Guinea for example, simultaneously cradles the world's last vestiges of stone age cultures, supports an emerging modern democracy, and embraces within its boundaries more than one quarter of the world's languages.
The unity of purpose of AOSIS stems simply from the common threat to the survival of island countries that is imposed by global climate change. The threat of destruction which is a pressing everyday reality for AOSIS countries, perceived by their peoples as requiring desperate political measures, is now fully substantiated by the scientific community. AOSIS not only claims a righteous cause but its cause has also been supported by the best available scientific evidence.
Leadership has also been a vital factor in the success of AOSIS. The first chair of AOSIS, Ambassador Robert Van Lierop, an African-American lawyer who represented Vanuatu for more than a decade at the United Nations, skilfully guided AOSIS through its early years. On one particularly dramatic occasion, Ambassador Van Lierop led AOSIS on an indignant, late-night walkout from a particularly contentious meeting of the Group of 77 and China in Geneva, in which a single oil producing member of the Group stubbornly blocked all discussion of key planks in the AOSIS proposals. Significantly, a little over a year later, AOSIS under his leadership was handed the full authority of the Group of 77 and China to negotiate a separate agreement in preparation for the UN Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States in Barbados.
The current AOSIS chair, Her Excellency Annette des Illes of Trinidad and Tobago delivered one of the most effective speeches in the history of the climate negotiations when she introduced the AOSIS protocol at the 11th session. The gifted vice chair of AOSIS, Ambassador Tuiloma Neroni Slade, led AOSIS at the First Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention in Berlin in April of 1995. There in collaboration with Dr John Ashe of Barbados and Evans King of Trinidad and Tobago, Ambassador Slade and the AOSIS membership forged a partnership with a large majority of the Group of 77 and China in support of the AOSIS protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing countries.
Perhaps the most significant factors affecting AOSIS's emergence as the powerful and widely heeded conscience of the international community on climate policy has been the recognition of the truth and justness of its cause by the rest of the world and the corresponding commitment of its member countries. From the establishment of AOSIS, some of its members have argued that island countries should have a central role in the formation and governance of the international climate negotiations, on the basis that they incur the greatest risk from climate change. Otherwise, AOSIS countries faced destruction without representation, surely a greater affront than the taxation without representation over which revolutions have been fought. The principle of representation proportionate to risk struck a sympathetic chord at the Second World Climate Conference, and culminated in the inclusion of AOSIS members, including Ambassador Van Lierop and later Ambassador Slade, on the governing bureau of the climate negotiations.
Both AOSIS and international climate policy are now at an historic crossroad. A failure to reduce the global emissions of greenhouse gases soon will amount to a failure to arrest global warming and the attendant damage to the global climate system. The urgency stems from the physical inertia of the climate system; greenhouse gases emitted today contribute to global warming up to a century hence . The global climate can be spared only by immediate efforts to reduce emissions, as the AOSIS protocol specifies.
If even a decade passes before beginning the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we will be forced either to make far more drastic cuts later, or to incur unacceptable damage to the global climate system. According to Charles Fleming, the Ambassador of the island state of St. Lucia: "If we wait for the proof, the proof will kill us".
Translated into conventional economic terms, immediate, aggressive application of existing technologies to new capital stock can put the world on a trajectory of declining greenhouse emissions, with attendant massive financial savings from energy reductions and little impact on quality of life. Action taken now will also stimulate whole new energy and technology markets that are needed for the inevitable move away from fossil fuels.
By waiting even a decade to initiate this change, the opportunity of a smooth transition afforded by modification of new capital stock will be denied. The only option then will be a 'scrap and replace' strategy with attendant capital losses. Such economic suicide is unlikely; and hence, irreparable damage to the global climate system will then be assured. Perhaps the major hurdle is to reconcile the special interests of fossil fuel lobbies with the general interests of society at large.
AOSIS has provided, in its proposed protocol to the Climate Convention, an opportunity for global action. If the international community takes this initiative quickly, a positive outcome is still possible; but if it waits even a few years, we may force upon our children the Faustian choice between a disrupted world economy on the one hand, and a disrupted world climate on the other which will eventually destroy the world economy even more thoroughly. The choices made by the international community in the next few years will thus affect human civilisation and all life on earth far into the future.
AOSIS also now stands at a crossroad in its short history. Its sense of unity and new-found confidence on the international stage has not yet fully transformed its status, which remains informal within the UN system, nor its original mission, which remains closely tied to climate policy. There is latitude for broadening the AOSIS mission, for the threat of destruction from climate change is not the only issue that unites island countries, and the moral power of that position is not the only leverage available to AOSIS.
Island countries are not only the source of the greatest cultural diversity on earth - they are also the stewards of much, if not most, of the world's biodiversity. The Pacific region, for example, is home to 0.1 percent of the world's people, but has the exclusive national oversight authority for nearly one-half of the world's marine biodiversity. The perhaps five million supposed species of marine life in the Pacific are therefore overseen by an equal number of people - approximately one person per species.
Island countries are also the rightful owners of the richest marine fisheries in the world. In the Pacific alone, the annual tuna fish harvest alone is valued at more than US$2 billion. And yet, Pacific Island people currently realise less than 5 percent of the value of this resource and existing multilateral agreements do little to assure the sustainability of the key fishery resource. This current low return ratio means that there is huge and unused economic leverage over an increasingly valued resource; applying the leverage requires only political will and organisation.
On the international diplomatic stage, AOSIS likewise has greater potential political clout than it has yet been willing to wield. The membership of AOSIS represents one fifth of the total membership of the United Nations. And with the increased heterogeneity of the traditional groupings within the United Nations, AOSIS now represents by far the single largest, unified voting block. This position could be brokered, however cautiously, in the pursuit of common and legitimate AOSIS interests.
Even within the more limited arena of climate policy, the strength of AOSIS has potential to grow. The Objective of the Climate Convention is to stabilise the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at levels that are not 'dangerous'. As the science of climate change has solidified and the uncertainties have been reduced, it is increasingly difficult for any country or group to argue that the destruction of island countries is not 'dangerous'. The stronger the science, the stronger the AOSIS position, and this can only fuel the moral suasion of AOSIS in its continuing quest to strengthen the Climate Convention.
The main risk of an expanded mission for AOSIS is the erosion of the international sympathy that has been so important to its past successes. Its relative powerlessness, in real economic and population terms, compels AOSIS member states to walk a narrow line in pursuing their legitimate interests on the world stage. The only question is how narrow this line must remain in order to advance AOSIS interests.
In the meantime, how the rest of the world reacts to the plight of AOSIS countries as they face potential destruction from global climate change serves as a measure of the humanity of all. If island countries are permitted by the rest of the world to be inundated, we will all bear the moral responsibility.
AOSIS is a barometer not only of our humanity but also of our own fate. Because island countries are the 'front line' states in global environmental change, AOSIS countries represent the weather vanes of global change. If island countries sink beneath the waves, it will then be too late to arrest the unleashed forces of climate change, and too late for the rest of the world to escape the destructive consequences.
Islands thus represent a profound metaphor for the whole Earth. Whereas island people live in the vastness of the ocean, all the inhabitants of the Island that is Earth live in the vastness of space. Island people must conserve and protect their limited natural and human resources, and so must the inhabitants of Earth Island. Island people understand their fragility in the face of nature; and inhabitants of Earth Island increasingly appreciate the fragility of this unique planet.
John Donne wrote, in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, that 'No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main'. No person, indeed, is an island; and it is precisely for this reason that every man, woman and child would do well to consider themselves as sharing the main.
The Alliance of Small Island States was born of global warming. It is in the deepest interest of the rest of the world to ensure that it does not die of the same cause.
Maintainer: Dr T.Matthew Ciolek (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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