How The Islands That Will Be Destroyed By Climate Change Won A Victory In Paris

The 1.5 degree target was pushed for by the people who most desperately need it–because their homes are the most threatened.

How The Islands That Will Be Destroyed By Climate Change Won A Victory In Paris
[Top Photo: Andrey Yurlov via Shutterstock]

Dr. Hugh Sealy is sitting in his office in Grenada, looking out at a Caribbean bay and contemplating the work that lies ahead of him. Just about a week ago, at the climate treaty negotiations in Paris, he and dozens of other delegates representing small island nations like Grenada, the Maldives, and the Marshall Islands joined in singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” The group was celebrating: the world’s nations had actually agreed to try and save their small populations from certain doom.


They lyrics to the song say “everything is gonna be alright.” But even a week later, Sealy knew that was far from guaranteed.

The Paris Agreement was, in improbable ways, a victory for extremely climate-vulnerable nations like the Maldives, for which Sealy served as lead negotiator this year. The world had spent the previous decade trying and failing to come to an agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. If 2 degrees was a stretch, 1.5 degrees–which the scientific consensus now acknowledges is required to avert major climate change impacts, such as drowned islands–seemed near impossible.

Flickr user Ashwin Kumar

Yet the improbable did happen: When the gavel pounded signifying a final binding deal was reached, the text set the goal to hold global temperature “well below” 2 degrees, with 1.5 degrees as the stretch target. Small island nations, who hold the moral high-ground in the climate debate even if they have little actual economic or political clout, had won an acknowledgement of their right to remain habitable places to live.

“We figured this was our last, best chance to turn the trajectory,” says Sealy. “We came in with our backs to the wall.”

A confluence of factors came together to pass an agreement that Sealy considers a success for the nations he represents: it mentions 1.5 degrees, it talks about the special circumstances faced by small island developing states and “loss and damage” assistance for when adaptation is climate impacts isn’t possible, and it includes “pre-2020” actions (before the agreement officially takes effect).

For one, the science has become clearer and clearer that 2 degrees warming is too much. And it didn’t hurt that the major points of contention that had previously existed between the two largest players–the U.S. and China–had mostly been worked out prior to Paris.

Flickr user Timo Newton-Syms

Most importantly, what the islands lacked in individual clout they were able to leverage in their numbers. Many nations, especially the host country France, were hugely invested in a consensus agreement coming through. “You’re 44 countries of 196, you are powerful numerically, so that’s a driving force,” says Sealy. “We know we can’t go into corridors and wave a big stick–we don’t have a stick to wave.”

The Small Island Developing States negotiators manual, authored by Sealy, is essentially a guide in how to use guilt effectively. “We’re the conscience of the convention,” he says. “We can say ‘which of these islands are you prepared to wipe off the map?”

And yet the success in Paris is not a guarantee that island beaches will not be flooded in the coming decades–far from it. The island coalition would have preferred “top-down” targets, not the bottom-up, non-binding approach of each country determining its own emissions goals every five years, starting in 2020. And the current national targets are not nearly enough to achieve 2 degrees, let alone 1.5. But Sealy is mostly optimistic that the momentum has changed: “We have crossed the Rubicon. The Kyoto Protocol only gathered 18% of the world’s emitters. This one brings everyone together.”

Still, something like the Marshall Plan–the massive U.S. aid effort to rescue the post World War II global economy–is needed to get there. The international climate change community has long recognized that $100 billion a year is needed to help developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change, grow their renewable energy use, and wean off fossil fuels. But nowhere near that much money is on the table yet.

Also, important for nations like Grenada, will be making sure countries are acting right now to reduce their emissions and not waiting for 2020. Because island countries don’t have the luxury of time.

Sealy is taking a break for the Christmas holiday. But right after the New Year he will be meeting with other nations to plot the next wave of strategy. “We will push very very hard now for the next four years for an escalation in ambition,” he says. “I have a personal responsibility.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.