When a vulnerable island nation calls on would-be superpowers to attend the UN’s climate summit, why are NGOs not offering more solidarity?
By Malini Mehra
As China and India attended opening talks in Beijing on Wednesday for the meeting of the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) group on climate change, almost 6000 miles away in the Samoan capital of Apia, a revolt was brewing.
Not by the usual suspects – feisty NGO climate and development activists – but by political leaders from small island states.
Samoa was hosting the 3rd UN Conference on Small Island States and high on the agenda was climate change.
With the presence of leaders such as UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, and the WMO’s Michel Jarraud, talk focused on the upcoming UN Climate Summit hosted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
The question on everyone’s lips – who is coming?
According to unconfirmed reports more than 110 heads of state will attend the UN summit. Barack Obama and the leaders of France, Italy, Chile, Costa Rica are among the confirmed. China, India, Russia, Germany, Britain and Brazil are not.
In other words, except the USA none of the world’s top emitters or major players have announced their leaders are attending. It would be as if NATO’s major powers failed to attend a NATO Summit.
The world’s leading global NGOs are focused on the summit and hard at work raising profile and support.
But why have they chosen not to make a hue and cry about non-attendance from major emitters? Small island nations have found their voice where NGOs appear to have lost theirs.
China has apparently downgraded representation from early rumours of President Xi Jinping attending to Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli now expected. India has not announced who will be subbing for Modi.
This lack of high-level commitment at leaders level from the No. 1 and No. 3 global emitters drew drawn fire at the SIDS conference in Samoa.
When news reached Apia this week that Chinese President Xi and Indian Prime Minister Modi were skipping the UN summit, the anger was evident.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands issued a blunt statement noting it was “completely shocked and very disappointed” at Xi and Modi’s absence from the heads of state level UN Summit later this month.
In the statement, foreign Minister, Tony de Brum, said: “Every study I have ever read makes it clear that developing countries have the most to lose from runaway climate change. … we expect solidarity from our developing country compatriots, not excuses.”
The Marshall Islands have just cause for concern. At an average of just six feet above sea level they are at ground zero in the climate change debate. Literally.
Climate-related sea level rise has led to unprecedented flooding, incursion of salty water into wells and fields, damage to agriculture, homes and businesses. The economy and infrastructure have taken a beating.
For a small island nation like the Marshall Islands climate change is not an academic or ‘tomorrow’ issue – it is a here-and-now, life-and-death issue.
UNEP’s report on small island states (SIDS), launched at the Samoa conference, notes that despite producing less than one percent of global greenhouse gases, SIDs are feeling the heat on climate in every sector.
In the Marshall Islands the cabinet has declared a state of emergency and the nation committed itself to championing climate action for ‘island survival’.
Last year it convened Pacific Islands to issue the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership and has been a leading figure in the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action.
As a nation fighting for survival the Marshall Islands doesn’t play the usual north-south climate politics.
As a member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) its call for universal greenhouse gas emissions cuts has been at odds with the interests of larger powers within the G-77/ China developing country bloc.
For small island states (SIDs), carbon emissions do not come with a national flag attached. They cause devastation regardless of provenance.
But the SIDs attitude of ‘a plague on all your houses’ to global emitters – regardless of their ‘Annex 1’ or ‘Non-Annex 1’ UN tags – has caused discomfort for countries claiming the ‘right to pollute’.
The argument ‘pollute today and pay tomorrow’ has little resonance for island states. They are paying for both historic and current greenhouse gas emissions now. By the end of the century many will be disappear from the world map.
So, when a small island nation fighting for its survival challenges two of the giants of the league of global emitters, how should the climate community react?
The Marshall Island’s foreign minister called for “… solidarity from our developing country compatriots, not excuses.” No reaction from China or India has been reported from the meeting of the Like Minded Group on Climate Change in Beijing.
But if solidarity from China and India has been in short supply, why has it been visibly absent from the large environment and development groups?
Are the politics of climate change so polarized that global NGOs hesitate to support climate victims when the large powers under pressure are not the US or EU, but China and India?
The President of the Marshall Islands, Christopher J. Loeak, was the first head of state to confirm his attendance at the UN Summit. Recently he wrote a piece in the Huffington Postcalling on all world leaders to be in New York.
Clearly for the climate vulnerable it matters greatly who comes to New York. Attendance is an act of political solidarity and personal commitment.
Absence is an abdication of leadership. Every leader should not only be expected to attend but to come with concrete pledges, including for the richer countries on climate finance.
If ‘being there’ is the first rule of politics, China, India, Britain, Germany have failed the test. The Marshall Islands has thrown down the gauntlet.
Will civil society raise its game now and increase pressure on errant leaders to attend or collude in making excuses?
Malini Mehra is on the Board of China Dialogue and India Climate Dialogue. Follow her on twitter @malinimehra