PODCAST: Beating 1.5 Degrees Imperative for Island States

Carterets Islander family
A Carterets Islander family crosses the Tulun Lagoon between islands. Image: Tulele Peisa

Rising king tides, saltwater intrusion, and hunger are increasingly the stamp of global warming across islands such as the Carterets. But increasingly aggressive climate goals, such as those under development in San Antonio, Texas, are a cause for hope for the islands of the world.

Greg Harman

At the conclusion of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 21, virtually every country on earth agreed to work together to hold global warming “well below” a 2 degrees Celsius increase (3.6 F) over pre-industrial levels. Two degrees had been identified, somewhat arbitrarily, as the point beyond which the most destructive manifestations of our climate crisis would materialize.

Thanks to intense pressure from protesters outside the conference and delegates representing some of the most climate vulnerable parts of the world—including the low-lying island states—the non-binding Paris Climate Agreement that emerged from COP 21 includes 1.5 C as an aspirational target.

Increasingly, cities today are skipping talk of 2 degrees and declaring this more aggressive 1.5 degree goal right out of the gate.

The difference between these two benchmarks is a matter of life and death for the world’s low-lying island states. This message was clearly delivered in Paris, when island-state delegates insisted at the COP they needed “1.5 to stay alive.”

Listen: San Antonio’s Climate Commitments and the World’s Island States (A Conversation with Ursula Rakova)

Last year, San Antonio started its own local climate planning with talk of 2 degrees as meeting the Paris Agreement. However, planners and volunteers involved in developing the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) are no longer tasked with developing two distinct temperature paths, one for 2 degrees and another for 1.5.

The mayor’s office, CAAP committee members were told in their September work sessions, has committed to one path. Here in San Antonio, 1.5 will be the number to meet.

In this, San Antonio is not alone. By the conclusion of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco last month, an estimated 70 mayors from around the world had committed (or re-committed) to the same aim. As stated in the summit’s concluding Call to Global Climate Action, “Over 100 Mayors, state and regional leaders, and CEOs have committed to become emissions neutral by 2050 at the latest and in line with the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement.”

Given the failure of the world’s leading economies—most glaringly in the U.S., where the executive and legislative branches have declared what can only be described as outright war on global climate stability—the world is well on its way to blow past all these targets. Without profound and rapid action, a recently leaked IPCC report suggests the world may pass 1.5 by 2040.

No one on earth will be untouched by the climatic upheavals underway, including more extreme flooding, drought, wildfire, expansion of tropical diseases, and heightened food insecurity.

But balanced most conspicuously on this point of policy commitment may be those nations cresting in the midst of a warming, swelling sea.

Carterets Atoll
Carterets Atoll. Image: Google Earth

In the distance between 1.5 and 2 degrees, the fate of the planet’s island states is in play.

Ursula Rakova knows the turbulent nature of this world better than most.

Ursula Rakova
Ursula Rakova. Image: NZ Catholic

She has seen the waters on her island chain, the Carteret Atoll in the South Pacific, increasingly contaminated by salt water. King tides now regularly sweep over the islands, carrying away the limited top soil and, with it, the ability of people to grow crops.

As executive director of Tulele Peisa, a nonprofit formed by the elders of the Cateret Islands, she is helping direct the relocation of local communities to the “big island” of Bougainville roughly 50 miles away.

As I wrote for Guardian Sustainable Business in 2014:

“On mainland Bougainville, food crops do not necessarily have to be planted, you leave something on the ground and within the next couple of days it is growing,” [Rakova] said.

However, on the Carterets, is it difficult to get things to grow in the increasingly saline soil and malnourishment is common. “Women and children may drink a young coconut in the morning and this [must] hold them for the rest of the day,” Rakova said.

While I’ve communicated with Rakova electronically since, this last week offered my first opportunity to speak with her directly. It was in a loud coffee shop with a weak Skype connection, but it was a gift all the same.

Rakova, a founding member of the international advocacy group Climate Wise Women, has been hailed by the Weather Channel as one of the 25 Smartest Voices on Climate Change.

Here we speak together about the need for local communities to be able to direct their own destinies—especially in the face of global warming’s violence. We speak about why she dislikes designations such as “refugee” and “victim,” even in the midst of forced dislocation. And we talk about the practical needs Carteret Islanders have, including for technological assistance in establishing value-added products at their small cacao farms and investment for renewable energy systems to power operations in their new communities.