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“Countries Least Responsible for Climate Change are the Ones Most Threatened by It”: Island States Urge Binding Emissions Cuts at U.N. Climate Summit

StoryDecember 08, 2010
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Inside the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancún, one of the most moving speeches on Tuesday was by Marcus Stephen. He is president of Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation, covering just eight square miles in the South Pacific. Stephen is the leader of the Pacific Small Island Developing States at the climate change talks. Johnson Toribiong, president of the island state of Palau, also spoke. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Cancún, Mexico, from the U.N. climate change talks. Inside the talks, one of the most moving speeches at the opening session of the high-level talks on Tuesday was Marcus Stephen. He is president of Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation, covering just eight square miles in the South Pacific. Stephen is the leader of the Pacific Small Island Developing States at the climate change talks.

This was his address.

PRESIDENT MARCUS STEPHEN: Gracias, Madame Presidente. Congratulations on your assumption of the presidency. We take this opportunity to express our deep appreciation to His Excellency President Calderón and the people of Cancún for your warm hospitality. I have the great honor to speak on behalf of the 14 Pacific Small Island Developing States. The Pacific states align themselves fully with the statement to be delivered by His Excellency Tillman Thomas, prime minister of Grenada, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States.

Madam President, the Pacific has a rich cultural and linguistic tradition. Hundreds of distinct languages are spoken in homes throughout our 14 countries. No more than 10,000 people speak my native language of Nauruan, and it, like so many others, may soon disappear. However, none of our words are quite so exotic as the ones spoken by the climate change negotiators. The people who inhabit these walls communicate in acronyms — QELROs, LULUCF, NAMAs — letters that carry the power to determine which of our nations may thrive and which may vanish beneath the waves. Yet, neither this nor any other language adequately captures the destructive impact that climate change is having and will continue to have on the people of our region. The gravity of the crisis has escaped us. It has become lost in a fog of scientific, economic and technical jargon. Without bold action, it will be left with to our children to come up with the words to convey the tragedy of losing our homelands when it did not have to be this way.

So, instead, I will describe the task before us by evoking a concept that has universal meaning and power, that of responsibility. I, along with my fellow leaders from the Pacific, have a first and overriding responsibility to protect the safety and well-being of our people. It is the reason that we have flown halfway around the globe to be here today. Our countries are small, so perhaps the nature of our responsibility is different than in other places. We are not beholden to powerful corporations or entrenched interest groups. Our governments are not deadlocked because of ideological divisions. The decisions we make have a very direct and immediate impact on our neighbors and friends. We are the heads of the Pacific family, and we will continue to defend our family when they are put in harm’s way.

Madam President, as members of the AOSIS, we have consistently offered proposals that reflect the latest scientific and economic understandings of climate change. We are not seeking charity. Our principles will not be sold to the highest bidder. We are taking responsibility. Some of us have convened international summits to facilitate a way forward. Others have declared their intention to make their countries carbon neutral. All of us have developed ambitious, low-carbon development plans and have commenced with implementation despite the enormous difficulties we have accessing financial resources. We are fighting to adapt to the new environmental realities we face.

Our priorities are clear. There is very little room for compromise. When you ask us to compromise, you are asking us to choose how many islands we will lose. This is not a choice we are prepared to make. Our choice is to continue to work towards a fair solution. We are optimistic that this conference can take us one step closer towards a two-track, legally binding outcome in South Africa. This must include amendments to the Kyoto Protocol and a new Durban protocol that captures our work on long-term cooperative action.

Madam President, there is a phrase in these negotiations that gives us hope: a shared vision. It signifies a unity in purpose and a recognition that all of us are prepared to work towards a more just future. This must be a collective effort to deliver a diverse and abundant planet to our children. This is the responsibility that all of us in this room, from the smallest country to the largest, have been entrusted with. This is on our watch. We must succeed. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Marcus Stephen, president of the island nation of Nauru. He is also a seven-time gold medal winner in weightlifting at the Commonwealth Games.

Also speaking at the opening session of the high-level meeting at the COP16 here in Cancún was Johnson Toribiong, president of the island state of Palau. This is what he had to say.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON TORIBIONG: I stand here before you today as a head of state, but I will speak as one of the sons of the Pacific. Our livelihood, indeed our very existence, depends upon the oceans. The ebb and flow of the oceans are as much a part of our life as the air we breathe. But today we find ourselves on the front lines of climate change. The oceans, which once sustained us, are now threatening to swallow us. While Palau is safe for the time being, the ocean’s warming, the rise in acidification, threaten everyone’s existence. The world cannot continue to treat climate change as a subject of negotiation. Climate change is not negotiable. It is a crisis. The world must take action to immediately reduce greenhouse emissions, which is the very reason why you are here today.

As Palau’s president, my first duty is to protect the people of Palau. I take that responsibility very seriously. But I alone, and my people, cannot deter the threats of climate change. That’s why I traveled a long distance to Cancún to attend this important international conference. The sad truth is that the countries least responsible for climate change are the ones most threatened by it.

AMY GOODMAN: Johnson Toribiong, president of the island state of Palau.

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