May 14, 2015 / 1:56 PM / 3 years ago

Political inertia must not strangle climate deal: island minister

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Marshall Islands’ foreign minister, Tony de Brum, says his job is fast becoming one of disaster manager.

In the last six weeks, his Pacific island nation has been hit by three typhoons big enough to deserve names, and a dozen smaller tropical storms – an uptick he attributes to climate change.

“And it’s only the beginning of May,” he said in an interview on Thursday in London. “The height of the typhoon season is August.”

At U.N. negotiations in Paris in December tasked with reaching a new global deal to combat climate change, the Marshall Islands’ chief diplomat will push for a deal strong enough to hold global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, half the 4 degree temperature rise scientists say the world is headed for now.

Curbing climate change is technologically possible, as innovation and falling prices make clean energy more affordable, de Brum said.

But resistance by countries worried about their economies – particularly fast-developing nations - remains a huge problem, he said.

“The thought of just surrendering to climate change and saying we cannot do anything about it when the science and technology is there, when we just lack the political will to move it forward, is a terrible, terrible thing,” he said.

CLEAN ENERGY PUSH

The low-lying Republic of the Marshall Islands – threatened by rising seas and worsening storms, like many island nations – is pushing to show what is possible in transforming its economy toward a goal of achieving zero net carbon emissions by 2050.

Most homes in remote areas now have solar lighting, and schools have solar power points for computers. Dispensaries and clinics use solar lighting and refrigeration, and solar-powered desalination cleans the water from increasingly brackish wells.

De Brum is a leading advocate for ocean thermal energy conversion, a technology to produce energy from differences in surface and deeper sea temperatures.

And at the International Maritime Organization in London this week, he called for greater transparency by shipping companies on their climate-changing emissions.

The Marshall Islands has the third-largest number of ships in the world registered under its flag, behind Panama and Liberia. The registrations earn the country $5 million a year, de Brum said.

But rising emissions from shipping – which accounts for around 3 percent of total global emissions – “are a contradiction we need to deal with”, he said.

The Marshall Islands’ appeal for new regulations to make data on shipping emissions public met with opposition from a range of countries this week, however, and the measure was sidelined into a working group.

RAISING ISLANDS?

With climate change predicted to drive up sea levels significantly by the turn of the century, de Brum’s country is thinking hard about how to stay ahead of the rising water.

Besides ensuring new construction deals with the problem, the islands are looking into building storm shelters, raising the foundations of homes and ripping out World War II-era causeways that contribute to erosion, he said.

The government may even try using landfill to raise the surface level of whole islands.

“If they can build islands in Dubai, can we build up some of these islands and buy more time?” de Brum asked.

He has “great admiration” for efforts so far by France’s foreign minister to build momentum toward an ambitious global climate deal in Paris at the end of the year.

A focus on the opportunities in tackling climate change, rather than the negative aspects, will be crucial, he said.

“The burden is heavy on the polluters and emitters, but the burden is equally heavy on those of us who are not emitters and are on the receiving end,” he argued. “We must not give up.”

“We need something positive to report back to our grandchildren at home,” he added.

Reporting by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling

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