'We Are Not Prepared to Die': Island Nations Push Ambitious Plan at UN Climate Talks

Fiji President Frank Bainimarama addresses delegates at COP24 climate talks in Poland.
Photo: Getty

International climate talks in Katowice, Poland have been a bumpy ride from a wild U.S. event promoting fossil fuels to the host country decorating its pavilion with coal. A bloc of major fossil fuel producers that includes the U.S. has even tried to ignore a major scientific report warning of the dangers of unchecked climate change. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s ready to throw in the towel.

As the talks enter their final days, small island states and other vulnerable countries are circulating proposals on how to increase the collective climate ambition, and collecting signatures of other nations in support of those ideas. The show of force could provide the jolt needed to ensure these talks end with a meaningful, concrete agreement as the world attempts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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“We are not prepared to die,” Mohamed Nasheed, the former democratically elected president of the Maldives, said at a news conference on Thursday. “The Maldives has no intention of dying.”

If the world warms more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, many low-lying islands will become uninhabitable. Yet a major UN report released in October shows that current policies have the planet on a path to warm 3.3 degrees Celsius. Committing to 1.5 degrees of warming would require the world to slash carbon emissions 45 percent by 2030.

To that end, two major proposals are out there among the delegates. The first comes courtesy of the High Ambition Coalition, a wide-ranging group of countries committed to ramping up action. The statement, which has been inked by 28 countries including many in the European Union, calls a recent United Nations report on the dangers of more than 1.5 degree Celsius of warming “a stark warning and serve as an urgent call to increase ambition and strengthen efforts to tackle climate change.” The pledge continues that “we are determined to step up our ambition by 2020.”

In the United Nations world, ambitions are cataloged in national determined contributions (NDCs), statements from countries saying how much they plan to reduce carbon pollution, when they plan to end the use of fossil fuels, and more. Countries submitted their first NDCs in advance of the Paris Agreement in 2015, and have a chance to update them in 2020 or wait a bit longer. But as Ben Simonds, the head of communications for last year’s climate talks hosted by Fiji put it to Earther, “to keep 1.5 a viable option, these national determined contributions need to increased as soon as possible. Not 2025, 2020.”

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To that end, there’s a second text circulating from the Pacific Small Island States, a group that’s exactly what it sounds like. This group calls for all countries to raise their ambition and even lays out a specific path:

“We call on all OECD countries to quickly phase out their use of coal by 2030 and for all other countries to phase out their use of coal by 2040. There must be no expansion of existing coal mines or the creation of new mines.”

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Both statements also allude to the need to finance the clean energy transformation and adaptation in countries where the impacts of climate change are hitting the hardest.

Small islands have always been the moral nucleus of international climate talks, but the United Nations report from October has put their struggle in stark relief. And while a final agreement is far from inked, their relentless push could ultimately win the day against U.S. intransigence. The hope is that the statements currently circulating will influence other countries to get more serious with their NDCs and that some or all of the ideas espoused in the documents end up in the final agreement negotiators are working on.

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“I think the 1.5 report has shifted the conversation,” Eliza Northrop, a senior associate with the World Resources Institute, told Earther as she waited in Katowice for the latest official negotiation text to drop on Thursday evening. “It has had a dramatic role in focusing our attention. We can’t just keep talking about 2 degrees anymore.”

At the same time, major carbon polluters have tried to turn the 1.5 degrees Celsius report into a wedge issue. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia, and the U.S. have blocked “welcoming” the findings in drafts of the agreement, a move that the chair of the 47 poorest countries on Earth admonished in yet another statement put out Thursday. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, also alluded to this issue while addressing the conference on Wednesday, noting that ignoring the report “is not good news but we cannot afford to ignore it.”

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Beyond getting the UN report welcomed, Northrop said she’s looking for a final agreement that includes clear next steps ministers can take home after the long two weeks and robust financing so all countries in the developed and developing world can reach the ambitions they put forth.

Any agreement in Poland that helps speed up the transition to a clean energy economy could be an economic boon for every country. For small islands, though, it could be what Nasheed called a “blueprint of survival.”

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