Interview with a Climate Expert

Dr. Hugh Sealy worked with small island nations’ negotiators at COP21


Dr. Hugh Sealy is a Professor in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at St. George’s University in Grenada. The United Nations Development Programme appointed Dr. Sealy as a consultant and asked that he create a guidance manual, The Negotiators’ Guide to COP21, that provided climate change negotiators in small island developing states with the information and tools to adequately represent their constituencies during international negotiations.

The Global Intelligence: Various models have been created to predict sea level rise. Small island nations must be taking these models very seriously. In specific terms, what is the predicted risk to small island nations if the climate is allowed to warm 2C over pre-industrial levels?

Dr. Hugh Sealy: The latest reports predict that sea levels will rise in the Caribbean by at least 1 metre by 2100, no matter what mitigation pathway the world follows. Sea levels are already rising by roughly 3mm/year and the rate of sea level rise is increasing. If the Earth is allowed to warm by 2C, many small islands will simply cease to exist as viable human settlements. A combination of sea level rise of 1-2 metres (assuming that Greenland and the West Antarctica ice sheets remain relatively intact), more extreme weather events, and the dissolution of our coral reefs by ocean acidification will be catastrophic for island peoples in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. In non-scientific terms: small islands are already experiencing the impacts of climate change at the current 1C of warming; doubling the warming will wreak havoc. Vital coastal infrastructure—airports, seaports, hotels—will be lost. There will be prolonged periods of drought followed by devastating hurricanes. People will leave. Cultures that have contributed so much to the world, particularly in music and sport, will be lost forever.

TGI: COP21 has offered much hope, but it has been criticized on the fact that the commitments of individual nations are non-binding and insufficient. Facing real existential risk, small island nations have been the most vocal advocates for preventing climate change, but their voices are seldom heard. What would you say to those nations and policymakers that intend to cope with climate change rather than prevent it?

HS: Please stop being so short-sighted. Please stop emphasising short-term comparative advantage over your own longer-term sustainability. Recognise that small islands are the “canaries in the coal mine” and that no country benefits from runaway climate change. That was the positive take home message from Paris: everyone has taken on commitments. No country has been left behind. However, signing a voluntary agreement that has no legally binding targets was the easy part. Keeping warming to 1.5C will require the urgent implementation of a global Marshall Plan.

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