Leaders of the Pacific Islands are meeting this week to discuss the urgency of addressing climate change. Judge Tuiloma Neroni Slade, former Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, believes that the best protection against devastating climate change is justice and international rule of law.
Cyclone Pam. Photo: Harrison Tran
“The South Pacific Island Niue suffered devastation at 3 times its GDP with cyclone Heta and to the west, Vanuatu, lost about 64 per cent of its GDP to cyclone Pam.”
With their low to near negligible carbon emissions, small island developing states (SIDS) are among the least responsible for global emissions of greenhouse gases; yet their vulnerability and exposure to climate hazards often makes them the first and the most severely affected by climate impacts. And these regions lack the human resources, technology and materials to cope with the disasters that occur more and more frequently.
Climate disasters are taking a horrendous toll worldwide, with particularly harrowing consequences for women, children and the poor. In all regions there are mounting challenges to the sustainability of development and to the security of human populations. The consequences of these climatic events add substantively to the reversal of poverty reduction.
Climate change, an everyday reality
“Basic needs and vital resources are being affected; and other critical events, like ocean acidification, if unchecked, are likely to have major adverse effects on marine ecosystems, including fish stocks.”
The South Pacific Island Niue suffered devastation at three times its GDP with cyclone Heta and to the west, Vanuatu, lost about 64 per cent of its GDP to cyclone Pam. With the continuing adverse changes in climate, the particular concern will be over the disruption and displacement of populations. With ever more severe rises in sea-level and storm surges, people are being relocated away from the coastline or from specific islands in a number of Pacific countries, like the atolls of Bikini and Kili in the Marshall Islands and Carteret in Papua New Guinea. These coastal communities, including Kiribati and Tuvalu, are facing a diminishing population as people consider leaving the islands altogether.
The struggle for survival in these regions is real; the entire eco-system is at risk. In all regions of the world, island communities are facing ever more frequent and extreme climate related events, with impacts to land territory, fresh-water supplies and other life-support systems. In the Pacific, there has been a succession of super cyclones (Haiyan, Maysak, more recently Souldelor) and category four to five major cyclones devastating many small island communities and economies. Basic needs and vital resources are being affected; and other critical events, like ocean acidification, if left unchecked, are likely to have major adverse effects on marine ecosystems, including fish stocks.
“What happens to the smallest will, inexorably (as is now occurring), happen to others.”
Through their involvement with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), SIDS have been closely engaged with the international negotiations on climate change from the start, and also with the related development processes of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and Rio+20. While we fight climate issues on a local and daily basis, the only way there can be any real prospect for true sustainable development is through global cooperation, including the provision of adequate climate and development financing with fair access for small and vulnerable countries to such financing.
Island countries have been persistent about the magnitude and urgency of climate change, and with their call for effective protection and fair treatment. They have brought to the debate a necessary ethical dimension. What happens to the smallest will, inexorably (as is now occurring), happen to others. Their concerns have been pursued at the highest levels, including at the UN Security Council on the basis of international threats to human security. They are the genuine concerns of those facing real and immediate danger.
It is critical to emphasise the global nature of the challenge, and the global responsibility that lies with the international community acting together to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. Never before has the need to secure the core principle of the UNFCCC been more imperative – the need, that is, to protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind on the basis of equity.
World leaders must now focus their attention on climate change as an issue of justice, global development and human security. The application of climate justice principles and human rights need to underpin the climate agreement to be negotiated in Paris at the end of the year. Climate justice will help to deliver an agreed and effective international climate commitment that is binding on people and Governments, not simply by its language, but by its compliance and practical implementation. Ultimately, for the small and vulnerable, justice and the rule of law offer the best protection.
Tuiloma Neroni Slade serves as a Judge for the International Criminal Court. Prior to that, Judge Slade served as Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Samoa’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other notable diplomatic posts. Until 2003, he was Chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and was closely engaged in the international processes and negotiations on climate change.