“A Fight to the Death”: Small Island States and Climate Change

January 9, 2020 By Zach Cohen

COP25 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference – ended with a compromise deal last month, with UN Secretary General António Guterres noting that he was “disappointed” that world leaders were unable to come to an agreement that effectively addresses today’s many climate-driven challenges, from rising sea levels to extreme weather. These challenges are already a stark reality for many – especially in the developing world.

The Impacts of Climate Change on Small Island States

The urgency of adaptation is particularly existential for small island developing states like the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Speaking at COP 25, President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands declared that the islands are facing “a fight to the death” against climate change, following intense flooding that displaced hundreds in November.

Small island nations have been stressing the importance of immediate mitigation and adaptation for years. Of the 65 million people who live in small island states around the world, nearly 30% live at an average of less than 5 meters above sea level, making them vulnerable to rising sea levels. In 2009, the Maldives held an entire cabinet meeting underwater, to highlight that many low-lying nations could face total submersion.

In addition to humanitarian concerns, small island states also face dramatic economic impacts from climate change relative to their size. The Asia Development Bank found that the changing climate could cost Pacific Island countries as much as 13% of GDP by 2100, as a result of losses in fisheries and reefs, agricultural production, and tourism, alongside damage to infrastructure.

Building Climate Resilience

Many small island states have engaged in innovative efforts to adapt and build resilience to climate change. Pacific and Caribbean island states have joined catastrophic risk pools set up by the World Bank, which provide risk insurance to help countries respond swiftly to climate-driven disasters and avoid financial ruin. Additionally, many small island states have turned to innovative technologies such as satellites that monitor weather and track land degradation.

A number of U.S. development programs have helped small island states bolster their resilience as well. USAID’s Ready Project has worked alongside Pacific Island governments and regional stakeholders to improve resilience, from training Samoan businesses in best practices for disaster preparedness, to improving the Marshall Islands’ capacity to mobilize climate financing. And in September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an additional $63 million in U.S. assistance to the Pacific Islands which includes investments in disaster resilience and weather forecasting.

Not only does U.S. leadership through development and diplomacy help promote a sustainable model of resilience for small island nations, but it makes economic sense. Investments in climate resilience are highly cost-effective – the Global Commission on Adaptation has found that every one dollar invested in adaptation will yield a four-fold return in net benefits.

Growing Great Power Competition

As small island states have sought greater assistance to address the impacts of climate change, regions such as the Pacific Islands have also emerged as an arena for great power competition. Following the U.S. decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, some small island states have suggested they view China as more committed to addressing climate issues than the U.S. According to officials from the Solomon Islands, China “is showing leadership and commitment” on climate change, while the U.S. is demonstrating a “discouraging” lack of leadership.

China is “well ahead of the United States” in assistance – as well as tourism, trade, and investment — in the Pacific Islands, according to a report from the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Kiribati and the Solomon Islands – Pacific Island states which previously recognized Taiwan – switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in September, with China’s commitments to help address the impacts of climate change serving as a critical factor in their decisions.

Tackling the impacts of climate change will require an effort by all members of the global community – and there are consequences for U.S. leadership around the world if America pulls back when other countries like China are stepping in, with assistance that also comes with strings attached.