Climate Action

For small island nations, climate change is not a threat. It's already here

An areal view shows a resort island in the Maldives December 14, 2009. Maldives has a population of some 400,000 islanders, whose livelihood from fishing and tourism is being hit by climate change. Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed said in November that 2 degrees Celsius warming would risk swamping the sand-rimmed coral atolls and islets, dotted with palm trees and mangrove clumps, that form his small country.

Island countries like the Maldives are the canaries in the climate change coal mine. Image: REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

Hussain Rasheed Hassan
Minister of Environment, Republic of Maldives
Valerie Cliff
Deputy Regional Director, UNDP in Asia and the Pacific
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SDG 13: Climate Action

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

As world leaders gathered at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit this week, the damage Hurricane Dorian wrought in the Bahamas earlier this month served as a grim reminder of the climate realities that island nations face.

For the nearly one-third of all citizens in small island developing states (SIDS) living in areas no higher than a few meters above sea level, the existential threat of climate change is already here.

Adapting to harsh conditions and extreme weather has been the way of life for island societies for as far back as their histories recall. But the rising scale and the intensity of storm surges, salt water intrusion and coastal destruction of the past decades have decimated coping capacities, leaving island populations with failing crops, crippling water shortages and an uncertain future.


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If the world is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C – seen as a final threshold before runaway climate change – we have to back the vision of a resilient, sustainable and low-carbon future for our planet. The UN Secretary General's Climate Action Summit, of which SIDS were an early champion, should presage an era of collective higher ambition on climate change.

The nationally determined contributions (NDC) set forth by countries as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement remain the most widely accepted metric for our commitments to reducing emissions. If the Paris Agreement is the vehicle for positive change, then the NDCs are its engine.

The current NDCs, even if all governments successfully implement the actions they’ve committed to, will put us on the trajectory of 3.2°C warming. Hence the need for greater ambition.


Since 2015, governments – many from island nations – have taken bold steps to reduce emissions and increase their resilience to climate impacts. For the NDCs to fulfill their full potential they must remain ambitious. Better still, we must raise our collective ambition for them.

The Maldives, together with other SIDS, advocated strongly at the summit for a holistic approach for islands to contribute to the execution of bold NDC plans.

The Climate Smart Resilient Islands (CSRI) initiative, that the Maldives leads on behalf of an array of island nations, will work towards greener transport and connectivity, greater food security through innovative and sustainable fishery and agricultural practices, investments in green tourism practices and climate proofing of all future infrastructure investments.

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As part of its ‘Climate Promise,’ the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is scaling up support to 100 countries to accelerate national climate pledges by 2020 and mobilize an additional$3 billion for climate action over the next decade.

There is a strong investment case for climate action. Every dollar spent on adaptation yields a four-fold return in avoided damages. On the other hand, Asia will see a surge in new public infrastructure over the coming decade, and we must invest in greener economies to avoid being locked into another generation of business-as-usual emissions patterns.

The fate of our planet’s future must not fall victim to political indecision. All countries, no matter their size, must pledge unwavering political commitment to decisive action.

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