By Georgina Wade
Fiji’s presidency over COP23 has given Small Island Developing States (SIDS) an invaluable platform to draw attention to the challenges they are facing due to climate change. SIDS are among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Their small geographical area, isolation and exposure leaves them particularly susceptible to climate change risks including sea-level rise, cyclones, increasing air and sea surface temperature, and changing rainfall patterns. And although these countries are among the least responsible for climate change, they are likely to suffer the most from its adverse effects and could, in some cases, become completely uninhabitable.
The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds that the impacts of climate change will affect the livelihoods, coastal settlements, infrastructure, ecosystems and economic stability in SIDS with sea level rise posing an increasing threats to low-lying islands and coastal areas. Additionally, higher water temperatures will increase the rate of coral bleaching causing a significant rise in coral mortality. For many SIDS, coral reefs are integral to daily life through their contribution to the economy via the tourism and fishing industries and their role as a vital protein source.
A 2005 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) report warned that SIDS are reaching their tolerance limits with their vulnerability to climate change expected to worsen with each passing year. The sheer magnitude of climate risks to SIDS was evident throughout the 2017 hurricane season which brought an unprecedented series of catastrophically strong storm systems resulting in an estimated $385 billion in economic loss. Labelled as the most powerful Atlantic storm in recorded history, Hurricane Irma brought about the forced abandonment of Barbuda while Hurricane Maria shut down Puerto Rico’s entire electricity service. To further underline the severity of the situation for SIDS, earlier this month a report was released stating that Fiji alone would have to spend about $4.5 billion over the next decade to reach its development objectives while facing climate change impacts.
Despite their small contribution to global emissions, SIDS have worked to remain at the forefront of global climate resilience efforts. Republic of Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, made history with Fiji’s presidency over the 23rd United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) by becoming the first SIDS to preside over the conference of the parties. This prominent role put a strong emphasis on SIDS, as Bainimarama said, “I bring a particular perspective to these negotiations on behalf of some of those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change […] We owe it not to ourselves but to future generations to tackle this issue head on before it is too late.” The Fijian presidency allowed for the prioritisation of topics that are usually not as prominent during the UN climate talks, highlighting not only the challenges faced by SIDS but the importance of cooperation between all parties in facing climate threats.