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Why Island Wisdom Is Crucial to Help the World Adapt and Prepare for the Impacts of Climate Change

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By Han Seung-soo*

For decades, small island countries have been warning the world about the consequences of climate change. While many countries have been debating whether climate change is even happening or who is to blame, small islands have just had to deal with its impact, from extreme weather to rising sea levels and increasing environmental vulnerability.

Major storms have always been a fact of life for small islands. But in recent years they have intensified in their destructive capabilities. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan struck the Caribbean island of Grenada, causing widespread destruction. The financial cost of the disaster was estimated at more than $900 million - more than twice the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Only 10 months later, the country was hit again, this time by Hurricane Emily, which caused another $50 million in damage.

In the Caribbean, changes in hurricane intensity and frequency could eventually result in additional annual losses of $450 million, largely due to disruption of a key source of revenue and jobs: tourism. Limited diversification and small market size means that small island economies are not resilient to disaster loss. This is true not just in the Caribbean, but the world over.

According to global risk models developed by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), six of the top 10 countries with the greatest proportion of resources at risk during hurricanes or cyclones are small islands. These losses will only increase due to sea-level rise, water scarcity, drought, and other factors.

The 38 small island developing states, which spread across the Caribbean, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, are not sitting and waiting for the next storm to hit. They have been taking measures to adapt to and manage the risks posed by climate change.

Several Caribbean islands came together seven years ago to create an insurance pool of easy-to-access disaster funding. Spreading the risk across countries reduces premiums and provides contributors with a safety net which can fund vital services when disaster strikes. Since 2007, more than $30 million has been paid out by the 16 participating countries. A similar initiative is under way in the Pacific region where the memories of the massive human toll and devastation due to Typhoon Haiyan that claimed more than 6,000 lives in the Philippines last November are still all too vivid.

Ideas and actions for reducing the risk from disasters will be at the forefront of the United Nations Conference on Small Island Developing States, to be held in Samoa from 1-4 September. The Conference will be a showcase for those living on the frontlines of climate change and could have a lasting and positive influence on the post-2015 development agenda.

The Conference is an acknowledgement by all the countries of the world of the unique circumstances that small island developing countries face. Their size, combined with their remoteness, and economies of scale, have made it that much more difficult for small islands to implement measures to become resilient. This is compounded by the impacts of climate change, a problem that is hardly of their own making as they collectively contribute less than 1 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, many are striving to become carbon neutral by using renewable energy, improving energy efficiency, and offsetting their greenhouse gas emissions.

Next week's conference in Samoa is the first of two critical global gatherings. Just a few weeks later, on 23 September in New York, UN Secretary-General will host heads of State, CEOs and civil society leaders at the Climate Summit. The Summit aims to spur accelerated and ambitious actions to reduce emissions and build resilience to climate change worldwide, from the largest countries to the smallest island States. It's about turning promises into performance.

With international attention on small islands, climate change and the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction, there has never been a better chance to turn the tide. Now is the time to listen, support and partner with those who have seen first-hand what climate change can do to your economy and your community. It would be one of the greatest tragedies of our time to continue to ignore the warnings from small islands; their issues will soon become our own.

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Han Seung-soo is the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water and former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea