Vulnerable Countries Call for No More than 1.5 Degrees of Climate Change

In the final hours of last year’s international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, the United States and other major economies drafted a non-binding agreement that calls for limiting the increase in global temperatures to no more then two degrees Celsius. Yet while many negotiators hoped this “Copenhagen accord” would at least allow discussion about deep cuts in greenhouse gases to continue, the countries most vulnerable to climate change are warning a two degree rise in temperatures spells doom for their nations. At this month’s climate meetings in Cancun, small island nations have been urging the world to limit set its sites on raising global temperatures no more than 1.5 degrees.

Limiting global warming 1.5 degrees Celsius would require-near immediate action from major economies to dramatically curb their carbon emissions and shift to renewable energy sources. But while the target is ambitious, it may be what’s required to prevent entire small island nations from being literally flooded out of existence. On Wednesday in Cancun, a group of five Pacific island nations called for greater ambition on the part of world leaders in the fight against climate change. All five countries—Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Samoa, and Federated States of Micronesia—are feeling the effects of rising sea levels and stronger tropical storms already, and are describing the effort to curb carbon emissions as a “fight for survival” for their nations.

This should give pause to anyone who thinks combating climate change is a goal at odds with improving living standards for residents of developing nations. In small island countries, which include some of the least developed economies in the world, thousands of people are at risk of being made into refugees by the ongoing effects of climate change. Other developing nations are almost equally at risk, with low-lying countries like Bangladesh also endangered by rising sea levels, while many of the poorest economies in Africa are threatened by worsening droughts.

Realistically, no comprehensive binding treaty is likely to come out of the Cancun meetings, so at least some vulnerable countries are focusing on small steps that can at least get the world headed in the right direction. So far negotiators from Tuvalu have tried to ensure that plans to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation do not leave legal loopholes that let destructive logging projects go unaccounted for. With progress curbing carbon dioxide emissions partially stalled, Federated States of Micronesia is pushing countries to curb emissions of hydrofluorocarbons—a less abundant greenhouse gas thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Vulnerable countries are also calling on industrialized nations to honor pledges made last year in Copenhagen to allocate funds that help developing countries deal with effects of climate change.

Unless major economies quickly become serious about reducing carbon emissions, there’s no guarantee small island nations will be able to save themselves. But what’s certain is the whole world will be better off for the efforts of vulnerable developing countries that are feeling the heat from climate change. By challenging the assumption that a two degree increase in global temperatures is acceptable, these countries are reminding negotiators that beating back climate change truly is a matter of survival for people throughout the developing world.

Photo credit: Leigh Blackall