With the United Nations “Rio+20” Conference fast approaching, the word “sustainable” is more present than ever – including in our own State of the World 2012 publication – sometimes to the point of excess. For low-lying island nations, however, “sustainability” is more than the mild, consensual definition of the United Nations: it is really about maintaining the environmental conditions necessary to sustain human life as we know it. Many countries, regions, and cities fear the potential consequences of runaway climate change, be it desertification, droughts, or increasingly frequent storms. What makes the cases of countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Micronesia, and the Maldives so unique is that their very existence as sovereign states is at stake, and some of their younger citizens might live to see that existence brought to an end – the IPCC (2007) has predicted 0.5 to 1.5 meters of sea-level rise before the century is over.
Whether that prediction turns out to be overly optimistic or gloomy is still to be determined, but low-lying island nations are not passively waiting to find out. Despite their remarkably low carbon-footprints, they are trying to lead by example when it comes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions: while an international treaty would only, by the timeline set at the 2011 climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, come into force in 2020, the Maldives and Tuvalu (among others) have pledged to become carbon-neutral by that date. But these nations have understood that due to natural – as well as political – inertia, more emissions and increased sea-level rise are already locked in. This is the basic reasoning behind the islands’ adaptation policies, which are only as varied as they are extreme. For instance, though the President of Kiribati Anote Tong admitted it sounded “like something from science fiction”, the country seriously considered building offshore floating islands and higher seawalls last year, for a total cost of about US$ 3 billion – quite a challenge for a country with a GDP of US$ 200 million in 2011 (about US$ 6,000 per capita).
Probably perceiving the shortcomings of multilateral diplomacy in addressing the pressing and contentious issue of climate change, Micronesia attempted in January 2011 to take its case to the courts – more precisely, to prevent the expansion of a coal-fired power plant half a world away in the Czech Republic. This was a ground-breaking legal challenge, opening up a new possible area of climate change litigation. But as the Czech government went on to approve the expansion a few months later, the concessions it made felt like a mere consolation prize: the government recognized Micronesia as an “affected state” under Czech law, and promised to mitigate part of the emissions through an offset program. Regardless of its disappointing outcome, the case could set a powerful precedent for increasing in scope the established legal concept of “transboundary harm.” After all, if a Vermont community can sue a Canadian factory for river pollution, why can’t the reasoning be extended to sovereignty violations of a much larger scale and dangerous nature?
Beyond David v. Goliath litigations and artificial land extensions, however, the increasingly dominant – and arguably realistic – form of adaptation is relocation. Facing the failure of his previous attempts, Kiribati president Anote Tong moved to an aggressive emigration strategy, complete with “Education for Migration” programs and talks with the Fiji government to buy 5,000 acres of land for his people. Similar discussions are currently being held by Tuvalu and the Maldives with neighboring countries such as New Zealand and Australia.
Ultimately, though, and despite the disappointing outcomes thus far, low-lying islands countries simply cannot afford to ignore international environmental summits. Regrouped politically in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), these nations have tried to influence the course of negotiations; in fact, in early 1994, they became the first organization to put forward a draft of the Kyoto Protocol. However, since their initial objective of 1.5° Celsius warming by 2100 proved infeasible, and with the 2°C objective quickly sliding out of reach, the AOSIS political strategy has switched toward recognition of the status of “climate refugee”, and the uniqueness of their “existential” climate-induced crisis. More and more, the mood seems to be switching to resignation and pragmatism, with ‘anything-goes’ solutions becoming the norm between disappointing high-level international meetings. Before the 15th Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen, Denmark, then-President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed pulled off a media coup by staging a cabinet meeting underwater. Since then he was ousted by an actual coup, and now media and political attention over Rio+20 is nowhere near where it was before the Copenhagen meetings.
Today, it seems that low-lying island states have renounced making international summits the center stage of their diplomatic strategies. So far, their displayed ambitions for Rio+20 have been remarkably modest; a month ago, AOSIS countries declared their wish for yet more calls to action, the organization of more summits and the enriching of the “green economy” imperative with shades of blue, taking into account the nations’ reliance on maritime resources. But low-lying island states might have a diplomatic surprise prepared, of the kind Tuvalu unleashed at Copenhagen. They could feel emboldened by the “exceptional” nature of the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development (as opposed to yearly, climate change-specific Conference of the Parties) and seize the opportunity to remind stakeholders of how heavy and meaningful the sustainability rhetoric can get. This is the United Nations, after all, a place in which state failure and disappearance are considered more seriously than anywhere else. In any case, it will remain fascinating to look at the adaptation strategies of low-lying island nations – a sobering glimpse of the planet’s climate future.