The United Nation’s latest report on climate change, published on October 10, was yet another warning about the reality the world will soon be facing if we don’t very rapidly switch to renewable energy.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that global warming is set to exceed the Paris agreement’s 1.5C limit by 2040, with catastrophic consequences. The report emphasised that “small island states and economically disadvantaged populations are particularly at risk”.
Scattered across the Indian Ocean, Pacific, Mediterranean, Caribbean and the South China Sea, more than 48 island nations are at risk globally. And one of these nations at risk is my home country, the Maldives, which is made up of 12,000 coral islands stretching across the equator in the Indian Ocean.
A couple of months ago, I went to Thulhaadhoo, a Maldivian island where I spent many of my school vacations, with my six-year-old son and dozens of relatives. During our journey to the island, the sea was relatively rough, though we did, briefly, have an escort of dolphins swimming alongside us. As we approached Thulhaadhoo, I was happy to see the turquoise blue lagoon, white sandy beaches, and lush green trees that I remembered from my childhood. Relatives and close friends were gathered at the jetty to welcome us.
We spent the next few days visiting old friends, teaching my son how to fish, snorkelling, and island-hopping to nearby uninhabited islands where my parents took us as kids. Nights were spent sitting on the “joli”, traditional chairs made of coconut husks, chatting with family and friends. All of it was a reminder of the island life we dearly treasure.
But amid this island bliss, my thoughts were often interrupted with anxiety about what lurks around the corner, threatening our homes.
Like many others, this island – indeed, an entire culture – is threatened by climate change.
Next to Thulhaadhoo is my grandfather’s island, Hithaadhoo, which is experiencing severe beach erosion and a freshwater aquifer contaminated with salt water due to climate change. Some of the reefs around another island, Muthaafushi, that were once bustling with life are already dead.
Yet, people living here haven’t given up hope. They stack sandbags to protect their homes from the tidal waves that are becoming more frequent. They are also trying to harvest rainwater, although this is becoming a less reliable water source as monsoons are getting more unpredictable.
Alongside these practical efforts by locals, we are also working tirelessly to persuade the international community to help us preserve our country, adapt to the challenges we face and take ambitious emission reduction measures to combat climate change.
If urgent, dramatic action is not taken our islands will disappear. The current rate of global warming could raise sea levels by several metres over the coming century, according to a paper published in 2016 by James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who is considered to be the father of modern climate change awareness.
Many low-lying island nations and coastal communities are already experiencing the slow-onset impacts of climate change, ranging from land loss due to beach erosion, saltwater contamination of freshwater supplies, and challenges to agriculture, commercial fisheries and infrastructure which are forcing people to move. For some, this may mean moving to a place at a higher elevation within the same country. But for others, including us in the Maldives, it means we will lose our homes, identity, our culture, our islands, and our country.
The Paris Accord set an aspirational goal of limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees which is necessary for small island states to survive, but that goal is getting harder and harder to reach every passing hour. According to the new IPCC report, we will soon cross a point of no return, following which it will be impossible to keep the earth’s temperature from rising above two degrees.
These may seem like only numbers or benchmarks to most, but to those who are in danger of losing their country because of climate change, they represent an existential threat.
However, there is hope. Remarkable gains have been made in renewable and clean energy technology. Innovative finance mechanisms have been created to fight climate change. Nevertheless, all this is not enough. We need political will, not just know-how, to win this race against time. The IPCC report also says if the global community doesn’t transition to clean energy sources by 2030, growing the share of renewables by two percent a year, we will be on an irreversible trajectory that will see the temperatures rise beyond two degrees. The transition to renewables will have to be even faster if we are to keep to only a 1.5-degree increase in temperature. This is what we need to do to ensure the survival of small island states like mine and avoid the displacement of millions of people.
All peoples of the world, including the peoples of Thulhaadhoo, Hithaadhoo, and every single island in the Maldives are entitled to a dignified life. This is a right guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to all peoples of the world – big and small, rich and poor including those of island nations. Climate change is a fundamental threat to that right for many.
It is heartening to know that we have a window of opportunity to avert climate disaster and save the lives and homes of millions of people. But at the same time, it’s heartbreaking to see that chances of success are slim, time is limited and the action needed increasingly dramatic.
Millions of people across the world, many of whom will be affected by the detrimental effects of global warming, are passionate about climate change awareness and prevention, but their leaders and governments we have failed to reflect that passion to their actions. We need to make climate change an election issue and we need grassroots organizations to put pressure on politicians to do that.
I want to be able to keep taking my son, and one day my grandchildren, to where I grew up and to where my grandparents’ graves are. I want my son and his future children to have the chance to enjoy our beautiful country.
It is not too late. But we need to take action now.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.