Leaders of small island states gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Friday to demand the full attention and commitment of the international community in combatting the potential devastation of climate change to coastal communities.
Hawaiian-born actor Jason Momoa, known for his leading role in the film ‘Aquaman’, captured many of the day’s headlines with his address to member states gathered in the Trusteeship Council Chamber.
“We are the living consequence of forgotten traditions. We suffer a collective amnesia of a truth that was once understood – the truth that to cause irreversible damage to the Earth is to bring the same unto ourselves,” Momoa told island leaders.
“We, the island nations and all coastal communities, are the frontlines in this environmental crisis.”
While Momoa’s presence served to attract additional media attention, several Caribbean leaders laid bare longstanding agreements, such as the 1994 Barbados Plan of Action, that have failed to garner the international cohesion necessary to produce enduring results for small island developing states.
“I ask myself, how many times must we spend the taxpayers’ money to come here and to hear the same thing over and over and over and over?” said Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados.
She called the split in consensus among in the international community regarding climate change “diabolical”.
“I don’t know what other word to use,” she said.
“And it is unbelievable. I don’t have the passion of Greta [Thunberg] or, indeed, I don’t have to risk what Greta has to risk because on Tuesday I turn 54. She’s 16. And I’ve had the luxury of being able to live my life as most of you have. But we have come to this point in time with a selfishness that is unparalleled.”
Without first addressing the perils of climate change, Mottley explained that other goals, such as zero hunger and poverty reduction, will remain out of reach.
To propel forward small island development goals, as established in the SAMOA Pathway, island leaders called on urgent international investments and easier access to financing.
The SAMOA Pathway, established in Apia, Samoa in 2014, created a 10-year action plan to promote international assistance and address the unique challenges of small island states.
“After five years of the SAMOA Pathway implementation, world leaders acknowledged that small islands face significant challenges in accessing sufficient, affordable development financing, including concessional financing,” a United Nations press release read.
Seychelles President Danny Faure said that while some progress has been made in the past five years, implementation has been slow and further resources must be made available.
Faure pointed to the challenges of de-risking, blacklisting and loss of international correspondent banks as threats to the economic sustainability of small island states.
He called for special classification of small island states for development assistance and a departure from the traditional GDP per capita criteria that often excludes middle-income islands.
“Over the next five years, there is a need for increased international support for capacity building, data collection, monitoring and evaluation to implement the SAMOA Pathway. We share the view that all priority areas identified in 2014 remain relevant. In particular, I wish to highlight climate change mitigation, disaster relief … and sustainable management of oceans,” Faure said.
Twenty-five years on from the Barbados Plan of Action for small island states, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne expressed disappointment.
“After all these outcome documents, it appears that we are in the final stretch. Sadly, the final stretch which I speak of is sobering. Our situation is dire, and we are running out of time,” he said.
“I am disappointed that in the face of this urgent threat, [small island developing states] have been relegated to a Friday, and not a Friday to ourselves but a few hours on a Friday when most other countries are speaking in the General Assembly hall.”
Browne called on the world’s greatest greenhouse gas emitters to be held accountable, as he questioned why island states must bear the brunt of irresponsible environmental practices.
“Why must we pay for someone else’s greenhouse gas emissions? Why should we carry the burden for their unsustainable growth model? Why should our existence be threatened while they live comfortably within their homes?” Browne said.
“We are small, peaceful states. We pose no threat to anyone, yet our very existence is threatened.”
The day did result in a number of commitments and agreements between small islands and international partners. The Maldives government, for example, entered an agreement with Parley for the Oceans and other corporate entities to promote clean energy and climate action.
An agreement in Jamaica, the Caribbean Philanthropic Alliance, will bring together private partners to promote sustainable development goals. The University of the West Indies and the United Nations Development Programme signed a memorandum of understanding to promote the ‘blue economy’ and protect marine resources.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK minister of state for the Commonwealth, recognised that while progress has been made, immense challenges remain for small island states.
“It’s not just about turning up and signing declarations. It’s not just about … pledging funds and making those available. What we are challenged by here is the ability of small island states [and] developing states to actually access that particular finance,” he said.
The minister announced plans to meet in London next year to discuss small island development challenges and access to climate finance.