United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of the threat posed by rising sea levels to hundreds of millions of people living in low-lying coastal areas and small island states as new data reveals seas have risen rapidly since 1900.
In a stark address to the first UN Security Council debate on the implications of rising sea levels for international peace and security, Guterres said countries such as Bangladesh, China, India and the Netherlands were threatened as were big cities such as Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Lagos, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Maputo, New York and Shanghai.
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“The danger is especially acute for nearly 900 million people who live in coastal zones at low elevations — that’s one out of 10 people on Earth,” he told the council on Tuesday.
Climate change is heating the planet and melting glaciers and ice sheets which, according to NASA, has resulted in Antarctica shedding some 150 billion tonnes of ice mass each year on average, Guterres said. Greenland’s ice cap is shrinking even faster and losing 270 billion tonnes per year.
“The global ocean has warmed faster over the past century than at any time in the past 11,000 years,” the UN chief said.
“Our world is hurtling past the 1.5-degree warming limit that a liveable future requires and, with present policies, is careening towards 2.8 degrees – a death sentence for vulnerable countries,” he said.
Developing countries, in particular, must have the resources to adapt to a rapidly changing world and that means ensuring the $100bn climate finance commitment to developing countries is delivered, Guterres said.
The UN chief offered examples of the effect of a warming planet and rising sea levels on communities and countries stretching from the Pacific to the Himalayan river basins.
Ice melting in the Himalayas has already worsened flooding in Pakistan, he said. But as the Himalayan glaciers recede in the coming decades, the mighty Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers will shrink. Hundreds of millions of people living in the river basins of the Himalayas will suffer the effects of both rising sea levels and the intrusion of saltwater, Guterres said.
“We see similar threats in the Mekong Delta and beyond. The consequences of all of this are unthinkable. Low-lying communities and entire countries could disappear forever,” he said.
“We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale.”
With rising sea levels creating new arenas for conflict as competition for freshwater sources and land intensifies, the secretary general said the climate crisis needs to be addressed at its root cause: reducing emissions to limit warming. Understanding the link between insecurity and a changed climate also requires developing early-warning systems for natural disasters, and legal and human rights provisions are also needed, particularly to address the displacement of people and loss of territories.
“People’s human rights do not disappear because their homes do,” Guterres said.
The meeting of the Security Council heard speakers from some 75 countries all voicing concern about the effect of rising sea waters, the Associated Press reported.
Speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, Samoa’s UN ambassador Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Pa’olelei Luteru said alliance members were among the lowest to emit the greenhouse gases that had caused global warming and climate change.
“Yet, we face some of the most severe consequences of rising sea levels,” Lutero said, according to AP.
“To expect small island states to shoulder the burden of sea level rise, without assistance from the international community will be the pinnacle of inequities,” he said.
Ambassador Amatlain Kabua of the Marshall Islands said many of the tools to address climate change and rising seas were already known.
“What is needed most is the political will to start the job, supported by a UN special representative” to spur global action, she said.