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.

For low-lying island nations, climate change and sea-level rise are not really a matter for debate, but already a threatening feature of everyday life (Source: The Atlantic.com)

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).

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Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, electricity, emissions reductions, energy, green economy, Kiribati, low-carbon, low-lying island states, Maldives, negotiations, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development, Tuvalu, UNFCCC

Climate activists demonstrate outside the negotiation hall.

Climate activists demonstrate outside the negotiation hall.

Negotiators have proposed not to amend the Kyoto Protocol or create a new legally binding successor treaty under the convention, but rather aim at a “political agreement” as the outcome of this conference. The progress has led Tuvalu to propose halting the negotiation process.

Demonstrators, whose access to the plenary halls has been restricted, rallied in support of Tuvalu. They also threw their support behind a growing developing country demand that negotiators create a treaty limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above industrial levels. Current projections suggest climate change could create an atmosphere up to three to four times as warm.

Tuvalu, a series of low-lying islands, faces the very real possibility that a cyclone or sea level rise will submerge their nation underwater. The United Nations does not recognize peoples without land.

“If their land disappears, their nation disappears,” said Fanny Heros of Alofa Tuvalu, a French solidarity group.

In the video, UN security guards record demonstrator’s names. They recorded mine, too, although I was only filming. Why? “You are involved,” I was told. My response: “You are involved as much as I am.”

350, climate activism, COP15, Copenhgaen, Tuvalu