Come visit the Maldives, its president entreated the world at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, moments before switching to an impassioned plea for help combating climate change. The adjacent appeals illustrated a central dilemma for many small island developing states: their livelihoods, or their lives?
The United Nations recognizes 38 member states, scattered across the world’s waters, as small island developing states grouped together because they face “unique social, economic and environmental challenges.”
This bloc is particularly vulnerable to climate change. This bloc is also particularly dependent on tourism — a significant driver of climate change, accountable for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions alone, according to sustainable tourism expert Stefan Gössling — and an industry devastated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The predicament these islands find themselves in is essentially recursive: Attract tourism for economic survival, which in turn contributes to climate change, which in turn bleaches the colorful reefs and destroys the pristine beaches that attract tourists. As is, by the end of the century, these low-lying islands could drown entirely.
“The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is a death sentence for the Maldives,” President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih told the U.N. General Assembly last week.
The annual summit is an opportunity for each of the international body’s 193 members to step into the spotlight on the world stage. But the Maldives — perhaps best known globally as an Indian Ocean playground for moneyed honeymooners and Bollywood celebrities — had a particularly high-profile platform this year. Its foreign minister is serving as the General Assembly’s president and Solih was speaking third overall — just after U.S. President Joe Biden.
But the climate change appeals are nothing new, made year after year as these islands are pummeled by storms and the seas rise like a “slow-moving killer,” as Colgate University’s April Baptiste puts it.
Baptiste, a professor of environmental studies as well as Africana and Latin American studies, researches environmental justice in the Caribbean region. She says the island states’ appeals had gone ignored for years because they were essentially seen as “dispensable.” With little land, political power and financial capital, it was easy to overlook their plight. These are also islands with a history of exploitation that dates back centuries and states whose full-time residents — not tourists — are primarily Black and brown.
“You have that layer of race, racism, marginality to take into consideration,” she said. “I absolutely believe that’s at the heart of the conversation as to why small island developing states are not taken seriously.”
People and governments have taken matters into their own hands over recent years.
One man from the island nation of Kiribati sought refugee status in New Zealand on the basis that climate change posed an existential threat to his homeland, though he was eventually deported. This past week, Vanuatu announced it would seek to bring climate change before the International Court of Justice. Although largely symbolic — any ruling would not be legally binding — the move, as intended by the government, seeks to clarify international law.