Environment Opinion

On climate change, the future of one nation is in the hands of the world

The geographies of the U.S. and the Maldives could not be more different. But President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement brings one difference into sharp focus —their respective elevations above sea level.

At 20,310 ft., the summit of Denali in Alaska surpasses anything on the North American continent. In the Maldives — the nation I serve as environment minister — the highest peak stands at just 8 ft. above the surrounding lagoons.

I am from a true ocean nation. We sit as the lowest state on earth. The Indian Ocean stretches into the distance wherever you look from any of our 1,192 islands. The land punctuates this great expanse of sea, constituting a mere 0.035 percent of our sovereign area. But if global temperatures rise by just a fraction, even these small parcels will be in great danger.

Unfortunately, this tragic fate is not in our hands. While the government takes every available measure to mitigate the effects of climate change, we can only hold back the tide so long. Instead, the Maldives must rely on international cooperation to solve what is otherwise an insurmountable challenge. This problem is larger than any nation on earth — let alone the Maldives.

There is no doubt that America’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord is a setback in holding global temperatures to safe levels. Where the superpower once led, it now retreats into itself.

Yet this does not seal the Maldives’ destiny — nor that of any other low-lying nation. Fortunately for us, the spirit of Paris 2015 still shines brightly across the world.

Not only have countries reaffirmed their commitment to the climate accords, they have also pledged to speed up the shift away from fossil fuels. The optimism that emboldened the world that winter night in the French capital is firmly embedded; there is no turning back now.

I do not doubt that we will encounter further difficulties along the road. But I have hope in the historic consensus that was forged. A clean future — one in harmony with our planet and its inhabitants — remains attainable.

For even if we are small, we are still nonetheless a nation — one entitled to its future. The Maldives is not just an idyllic holiday destination, but a vibrant society with a unique history and rich culture — home to 400,000 citizens with plans for tomorrow like anywhere else. The simple facts of our geography should not deny future generations their birthright.

And although President Trump may think the Paris Agreement is a bad deal for America, climate change is a potentially existential hand for the Maldives. We do not have a simple opt-out. We can only play our part, no matter how little we ourselves contribute to historic emissions. And this was central to the Paris Accords — no single nation benefiting at the expense of another, but instead working together to save our planet. That is something I’m sure we can all endorse.

Moreover, Paris universally recognized developed nations’ role in climate change itself (despite disagreements over the relative targets to meet). The industrialization that propelled these nations to prosperity has put the planet’s survival at peril. Whilst we cannot blame generations of past — man-made climate change was undiscovered at the time — it does make certain duties incumbent on those who have reaped its benefits.

And lest we forget, America is the largest carbon polluter in history. Its departure from the Paris accords therefore represents not only a turning away from the future, but a denial of its past. It is easy for all to see that this is a great abdication of responsibility.

Nations like the one I serve should not be the collateral damage to others’ affluence. And there are many like us in the Small Alliance of Island States (AOSIS), a coalition — on which the Maldives sits as chair — of 44 countries facing similar environmental and developmental issues. We are all on the front lines of climate change. And while we pay the price for developed nations’ wealth, we only have comparatively modest budgets to protect ourselves. The Paris Agreement acknowledged this salient fact.

But so too do many Americans. We stand with the people of Pittsburgh, whose mayor announced — after Trump name-checked the city to justify withdrawal — that he will continue to meet the targets. We similarly stand with the governors of California, Washington, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island who have taken the same position. For they understand climate change is a global problem.

Sooner or later, unchecked climate change will affect us all.

The Paris Agreement was a landmark deal because it certified the only solution to global warming — a truly global response. If America’s decision has illuminated one thing, it is that the consensus forged in 2015 is beyond recall.

This gives me hope that the Maldives’ peaks — however close to the water — will remain above the ocean. The world has just begun on its journey to a clean-energy future. No one country should derail it.

Thoriq Ibrahim (@Thoriqibrahim) is the Minister of Environment and Energy for the Republic of Maldives. 

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