Kevin T Sabu
Research Intern, Jindal Centre for the Global South,
O.P. Jindal Global University, India.
The global warming-induced melting of Antarctic and Arctic glaciers and ice has a detrimental impact on not just the ecology but also the humanitarian setting as well. Various geographically smaller island states (SIS) such as Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, etc. The survival of SIS nations is under grave threat due to their vulnerabilities to geographical factors such as the geographical size, proximity to the seacoast, and the sea level. The rising sea level furthermore, increases the threat to the sustenance of these states. With the current rate of global warming, NASA points out that “almost 80 percent of the Maldives could become uninhabitable by 2050 and already most of the coral islands of Maldives is now standing less than 1 meter above sea level” (NASA Earth Data, 2021). Global North for instance is playing a critical role in global warming-induced rising sea levels. According to Lancet Planetary Health’s report, “The Global North is responsible for 92 percent of excess global carbon emissions.” (R. Pardikar, 2020).
Why is there a systematic disproportion in suffering? For the carbon emissions of Global North, the island nations like the Maldives have to pay an existential price, but why? This is not just the case in the Maldives but many other states are underpinned by the existential threat. It is true that the Warsaw Summit deliberated on ‘International Mechanism for Loss and Damage’ but will the Global North countries be willing to accept the compensation and reparation for the loss and damage caused due to the climate change? Will the Global North in near future open its doors to climate change refugees in a mass exodus?
A primary question that has to be asked at the onset of this brief, is the sea level rise solely caused by the melting of glaciers? The answer is no. Sea level rise is attributed to two main processes. Firstly the human-induced warming of the oceans, stemming from our heat-trapping emissions, causes seawater to expand. This thermal expansion has contributed about 25 percent of the long-term rise in sea level over the latter half of the 20th century. But this thermal expansion is meagre and the major contributor is that this percentage is due to the shrinking of glaciers. It is due to this very context of significance that this article looks at rising sea levels as a threat to SIS nations and the Global North’s role in causing the existential crisis to the island nation-states of the Global South as well as, there would be a focus upon the debate of accepting the losses and damages and taking liability/responsibility for destructing security of the SIS nations.
The invisible hand of the Global North in threatening the security of the Small Island States of the Global South
But ironically, these SIS nations do not contribute much to the global carbon emissions and it has to be noted that largely the Global South does not have much carbon emissions when compared with the Global North. The 2022 report of the union of concerned scientists (UCSUSA) highlights that from 1750 CE until 2020 CE the largest contributors of carbon dioxide emissions are Global North counties. Therefore, the primary argument being put forth here is that the responsibility and liability for the sinking nations should be in the hands of these Global North countries. Since the phenomenon of the rising sea levels and global warming has been a gradual process, the primary focal point for taking the responsibility for this grave climate crisis be pointed towards the Global North and it is due to these very reasons that this article looks at the total emissions of the carbon dioxide from 1750 to 2022 and not just in the terms of the current base year (2022).
In order to understand the large contributors to the greenhouse effect and subsequent global warming, a graph illustrating the CO2 emitting countries from 1750 to 2020 is illustrated as given below :
This graph highlights that the Global North is having the crocodile share in the global CO2 emissions. Therefore the countries like the USA, Russia, Germany, UK, Japan, France, Canada, Ukraine, Poland, South Africa, and Italy within the top 10 emitters have to be held responsible. It is also true that China, India, Mexico, and Iran from the Global South are also responsible part of the largest 10 emitters list from 1750 to 2020. But when it comes to the share of the Global South countries in emissions within the top 10 countries in emissions from 1750 to 2020, it is totalled at 18.5 percent of emissions. While the Global North countries in the top 10 countries account for a combined emission of 54.5 percent. This crocodile share in itself points to the destructive nature of Global North (with regard to global warming). Historically USA has been the largest emitter of CO2, for instance, the USA emissions from 1750 to 2020 have been totalled 416,738 metric megatons.
Therefore, the historical statistics point out that the Global North countries have to take the responsibility for the CO2 emissions that have been going. While it is also a fact that between 2020 to 2022, there has been a steady increase in the Global South countries’ rate of emissions but that does not mean that the historical rate of emissions done by Global North be dismissed as a gradual detrimental impact on the ecology of SIS states that are marginally visible in the current status quo. Therefore the primary principle on which the claim of responsibility is being pointed at Global North by the Global South is through the principle of losses and damages.
Even though the rate of emissions from the Global South countries has steadily increased, it has to be noted that the Global North emitters are the invisible hand that is solely responsible for the sinking of island states.
For instance, in the United Nations General Assembly 2021 annual summit, Ali, the President of Guyana, spoke out against all the large polluters for not sticking to their promise in the bilateral and multilateral summits that they will cut down the carbon emissions. He went ahead and stated then that the “climate change will kill more people than what the Covid-19 pandemic is killing” He further added that “we hold out similar hope that the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases, which are affecting the welfare of all mankind will also come to the realization that, in the end, it will profit them little to emerge king over a world of dust.” (Reuters, 2021)
The Minister of the environment of Maldives, Amninath Shauna for instance stated in an interview that the “things that we thought would happen towards the end of the century, we are experiencing now.” (ABC News, 2021)
The failure of developed economies therefore in cutting down the carbon emissions can have grave implications for which the low-lying island nations of the Global South have to bear. Principally, it should be the responsibility of the developed economies of the Global North to either cut down the carbon emissions and fund the protection of these low-lying nations’ security or else relocate all the people and their wealth to the developed economies with full rights and citizenship. Climate change refugees should be given rehabilitation and resettlement with full rights and citizenship in developed economies is what this paper proposes.
Sinking state of Maldives and Policy
Firstly, it has to be noted that the “sea level has been rising by 0.07 inch (1.7 millimetres) per year since 1950, on a globally averaged basis” (Church, J.A., and N.J. White. 2006). However, an average rise of 0.13 inches (3.3 millimetres) per year from 1993 to 2008 suggests that the pace of sea-level rise is accelerating. It is through this very context that the sinking of Maldives has to be looked at.
The Maldives is not just one large island but it is a conglomeration of 1,100 coral islands in the Indian ocean. One major fact about the Maldives is that it is the world’s most low-lying (Sea level terms) nation in the world. At the current rate of global warming, almost 80 percent of the Maldives could become uninhabitable by 2050 and this is as per the several reports by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. At the COP-26 summit, the President of Maldives, Ibrahim Mohammed Solib stated that “Our islands are slowly being inundated by the sea, one by one. If we do not reverse this trend, the Maldives will cease to exist by the end of this century.” More than 90 percent of islands in the Maldives have severe erosion, and 97 percent of the country no longer has fresh groundwater.
Therefore the future of Maldives is continuously being on track of vulnerability. Within the mid-way of this century, Maldives will become extinct if the global community does not tackle global warming. It has to be noted that with the rising detrimental condition of Maldives, the livelihood of civilians and security of Maldivians are under severe threat. With the sinking of the Maldives, the worst affected are those whose livelihood depends upon fishing and other traditional sea-related economic activities. The entrepreneurs and venture capital investors who have heavily invested in the seaside resorts in the Maldives are also going to go out of business soon due to the rising sea level and threats that it poses to their resorts, but again, it is ironic that, despite the same, the tourism sector is intact due to Maldives reputation as a premium destination for a vacation. As far as those who have investments in the Maldives are concerned, there is a rising trend of not getting new investments in the Maldives due to the sinking state of Maldives. There have been cases of high profiles migrations from the Maldives to other countries. While the Maldives in the short term is considered a cash cow for the existing investors. Also, it has to be noted that the tourism sector contributes the maximum to the GDP of Maldives. A major factor that affected the Maldivian tourism sector in recent times was the covid-19 pandemic but now the Maldives has gained momentum in recovering from the pandemic. Despite the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic being at its peak in 2020, Maldives received “555,494 international tourists in 2020” (UNWTO, 2021). Adding on to the crisis-induced by sea level, there is a rise in beach erosion. It is considered a severe threat by the Maldivian government. One major reason for beach erosion is the development projects and building construction and the construction of new harbours in the coastal region.
A primary mechanism through which the security of Maldives can be protected is through humanitarian intervention as an approach. Humanitarian intervention can be considered through the provision of the principle of losses and damages that were largely mitigated in the Warsaw Summit. The Alliance of small island states and the least developed countries have been seeking the same for a long while. Therefore, establishing a framework for the provision of liability and compensation for the losses and damages incurred on a long-term basis should be a primary moral responsibility to be considered by the developed economies. From 1750 to 2020 CE, it was the Global North that primarily caused the damage to the climate security and the subsequent sinking of countries like the Maldives. It also has to be noted that it was the developed economies that refuted such a mechanism when brought up by the small island states and less developed states of the Global South.
Losses and damages are the need of the hour primarily because the Global North is responsible for the destruction of the Global South island states. Also, states like the Maldives, which have a very meagre level of carbon emission, are now facing the brunt of the developed economies’ carbon emissions. This is the line of argument on which the claim of losses and damages can be sought. Will the developed economies accept the climate refugees by providing them with not just asylum but also rehabilitating and resettling them with full rights and citizenship? That has to be provided with, if not then the sinking of island states will kill more people than what the Covid-19 pandemic has killed.
An alternative possible policy framework is basically establishing artificial estuaries in and around the Maldivian coastal region, but such a consideration is not currently feasible due to the economic constraints and also the fact that such artificial islands constructed across coral islands may not necessarily protect the Maldivian coast from sinking until the sea level rise is curtailed. Therefore the only solution to protect the Maldives is through the establishment of an international framework to bring down the sea level rise along with the implementation of the losses and damages principle for not just the Maldivian climate refugees but also for the relocation, rehabilitation, and resettlement of Maldivian civilians with full citizenship in Global north countries if Sea Level rise cannot be controlled.
The world is at a historic juncture at this hour of grief. On one side there are developed economies of the Global North that refuse to reduce the carbon emissions and on the other, there are some Global South economies that claim to reduce the carbon emissions but haven’t shown any political will for reducing the carbon emissions like their counterparts in Global North. The time has come for the world to stand united for humanitarian intervention in the form of technology transfer, funds, and resources for tackling the threat of sinking the states while at the same time tackling the carbon emissions. Since it is the Global North that is largely responsible for causing the carbon emissions and sinking of low-lying island states of the Global South, it is their responsibility to accept the principle of losses and damages mitigated in the Warsaw Summit by the alliance of small island states. They must accept the climate refugees with full rights and citizenship for rehabilitation and resettlement, otherwise, the climate change and rising sea levels will kill more innocent people than how the pandemic ravaged the world.
Ablain, M., A. Cazanave, G. Valladeau ; S. Guinehut. (2009). A new assessment of the error budget of global mean sea level rate estimated by satellite altimetry over 1993–2008. Ocean Sciences: Berlin.
Church, J.A., N.J. White, R. Coleman, K. Lambeck, and J.X. Mitrovica. (2004). Estimates of the regional distribution of sea level rise over the 1950–2000 period. Journal of Climate: Washington
IPCC (2021). 6th Assessment report. IPCC: Geneva.
Khan, T.M.A., and D.A. Quadir. (2002). Relative sea level changes in Maldives and vulnerability of land due to abnormal coastal inundation. Marine Geodesy: London.
NASA (2021). Earth data. NASA: Florida.
Pardikar, R. (2020). Global North is responsible for 92% of excess emissions. EOS Journal: Florida.
UNOCHA. (2007). Maldives: Coastal flooding OCHA situation report no.3. UNOCHA: New York.
UNWTO (2021). Maldives tourism update. Vol.41. UNWTO Report: Madrid.
Warner, K. (2013). Loss and damage from climate change: Local-level evidence from nine vulnerable countries vol 5. International Journal of Global Warming: Geneva.
Zubair, S; D. Bowen; J. Elwin. ( 2011). Not quite paradise: Inadequacies of environmental impact assessment in the Maldives. Tourism Management: Hong Kong.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.