Climate change: challenges & opportunities for SIDS

Kaierouann Imarah Radix is a One Young World Ambassador from Guyana.

2014 is the UN International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and just this week the third UN Conference on SIDS was held in Samoa, such international conversation sheds light on the issues concerning small island dwellers and the actions they are taking to overcome them. A persistent threat of hurricanes and tsunamis, limited electricity supply and lack of clean water are just some of the challenges that Caribbean and Pacific Small Island Developing States face today. Climate change is both causing and worsening these problems. It’s our generation that will bear the brunt of these challenges in the future so it falls to us to find the solutions.

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Vulnerable to climate change

SIDS can be characterised by relatively small land masses, remoteness, livelihood constraints, lack of food security, susceptibility to natural hazards, their vulnerability to rising sea levels is also magnified. While the global average of sea-level rise is 3.2 mm per year, the island of Kosrae, in the Federated States of Micronesia, is experiencing a sea-level that is rising at a rate of 10 mm per year. The tropical Western Pacific has experienced sea-level rise at a rate of 12 mm per year between 1993 and 2009 – about four times the global average. (The United Nations, 2014)

Other growing threats of climate change to SIDS include increased flooding, shoreline erosion, ocean acidification, warmer sea and land temperature, lack of freshwater and damage to infrastructure from extreme weather events like hurricanes and tsunamis.

Apart from its direct impacts, climate change will have a ripple effect on several socio-economic factors in SIDS countries. For example, in small villages in the Caribbean and Pacific the fishing industry plays a significant role. In Pacific SIDS, fish accounts for up to 90 per cent of animal protein in the diet of coastal communities, rising ocean temperatures and acidification are changing the productivity and distribution of fish, threatening a vital source of food and income for island dwellers.​

Because of the lack of diversification and small market sizes of their economies SIDS are vulnerable to fluctuating market prices and devastating weather events, causing further problems to the economy. Tourism represents more than 30 per cent of SIDS’ total exports. If the sea-level rises by just 50 centimetres Grenada would lose 60 per cent of its beaches, the destruction of these tourist hotspots would severely damage the economy. ​

The way forward​

Unfortunately international community negotiations have been slow-moving in the fight to reduce the consequences of climate change, especially in SIDS. Just one step they should take is to adopt a legally binding agreement that includes clear achievable targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

States and multilateral development institutions need to develop appropriate growth indicators that take into account climate change, poverty, natural resource depletion, human health and quality of life of SIDS since typical GDP-based indicators do not reflect many of the distinctive features of SIDS economies such as small market size. States also need to drive diversification of sectors and create low carbon jobs so the economy is more resilient to climate change. Pacific SIDSs are especially suffering economically because of ‘Dutch disease’. Otherwise known as the natural resource curse, Dutch disease is when high revenues make a currency stronger, pushing the prices of exports up and decreasing market competitiveness, another problem the state should work to overcome. 

Despite the challenges these small nations have to confront there is incredible scope for development particularly in the area of renewable energy. Currently more than 90 per cent of the energy used by SIDS comes from heavy oil imports which are stretching the limited financial resources available and pushing electricity prices up. This contributes to the large percentage of residents in SIDS that do not have access to electricity (70 per cent of the populations in the Pacific Islands are without electricity).​

Potential alternative and domestic energy sources include wind, solar, tidal, hydroelectric and geothermal but SIDS lack the political will and significant investment needed to sustainably fund and develop such projects. Many SIDS also possess a wealth of unexploited natural resources such as minerals, renewable energy resources and fish stocks. Papua New Guinea has already embarked on exploratory activities for mining of seabed manganese nodules and rare earth elements ​and Caribbean SIDS should follow suit.​

Caribbean SIDS can learn from and emulate Pacific SIDS by moving away from emphasizing small state vulnerabilities and instead pay attention to new strategic regional environmental agreements such as SIDS DOCK. ​At a state level there must be proper planning and management of projects to sustainably build resilience over time for there to be significant gains in mitigation and adaptation to climate change.​ (Witter. M 2013)​

Youth action

A major cause for concern is the huge financial cost of adaptation to climate change, the capital cost of sea-level rise in the Caribbean Community Countries (CARICOM) alone is estimated to be US$187 billion by 2080, but young people not only from SIDS but from all over the world can be part of the solution to battle damage to the environment.

I am a member of CYEN Guyana, the Caribbean Youth Environment Network which raises awareness of climate change related issues across the Caribbean. CYEN Guyana helps by doing everything from coastal cleanups to holding "Young Eco Change Makers" environmental camps.

I know as well that many One Young World Ambassadors are also involved in tackling climate change from a SIDS perspective. Karuna Rana for example, from Mauritius, co-founded the SIDS Youth AIMS Hub, a youth-led NGO focused on advancing and implementing youth-led sustainable development among SIDS in the AIMS (Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea) region.  She is also the UN Environment Programme’s Global Environmental Outlook for Youth Editor and has been pushing awareness of SIDS impacting Sustainable Development issues since 2011 as part of her role with the UN Major Group of Children and Youth.

I believe that One Young World Ambassadors, SIDS youth and young people all over the world must continue to raise awareness of these issues and make their voices heard as a central part of the negotiations around the United Nations’ post-2015 development agenda on climate change.