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2014 Is Our Climate Moment

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Few leaders can say that the decisions taken in 2014 will play a big part in determining whether their country will still grace the world map at the end of this century. I can. Lying at an average of just two metres above sea level, my tiny atoll nation stands at the precipice, threatened existentially by the gathering storm called climate change.

The year just passed must surely have settled whatever debate, if any, still remained on the science of climate change. The world's biggest and most expert group of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, found that it is now "unequivocal" that human activity is warming our planet, and that many of the environmental changes we are currently experiencing are unprecedented for millennia. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said to an audience in my country late last year, "the science is clear, it is irrefutable, and it is alarming."

In the Marshall Islands, 2013 was a particularly difficult year. In May, our northern atolls suffered through an unprecedented drought, which forced my Government to declare a State of Disaster. Just six weeks later, our capital, Majuro, was hit by a king tide and rising seas that flooded the airport runway and many nearby homes, including my own. Then in November, we gasped and prayed as the devastating Typhoon Haiyan smashed into our neighbours in Palau and the Philippines, killing 6,000 people and destroying close to one million homes. Nearly 2,000 people are still unaccounted for.

While the Pacific is perhaps the region most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, this story is fast becoming a global one. In October, Cyclone Phailin battered India's eastern coastline and, during the Christmas just passed, the United Kingdom was brought to a standstill by fierce winds, driving rains and power blackouts. Just a little more than a year after Superstorm Sandy, scientists are already predicting 17 Atlantic hurricanes for 2014 -- this would be 15 more than last year, and the highest number since records began. Climate disasters are fast becoming the new norm right around the world.

Despite all these warnings and the knowledge that we have the economic means and technologies to accelerate the necessary shift to clean and green development, the fight against climate change is unfortunately suffering from a misplaced hope that we still have plenty of time to act, or that the proverbial silver bullet is just around the corner. In reality, time is already up.

In 2014, world leaders must finally rise to this challenge. Focusing exclusively on talks to conclude a new global climate agreement in 2015 in Paris is not a risk we can afford to take, not least because that agreement is not due to come into effect until 2020. As scientists have told us, global emissions must peak THIS decade if we are to have a realistic chance of avoiding the worst of climate change's impacts. It is time for us all to live up to our own lofty rhetoric, and actually do what is necessary to slow and eventually reverse the pollution of our atmosphere, in turn curbing global warming and the rising seas that threaten to engulf my homeland.

Last September, the leaders of the Pacific decided to do just that. Gathered in Majuro for the 44th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' meeting, we adopted the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership, committing ourselves to be "Climate Leaders", and listed a set of commitments to urgently phase down greenhouse gas emissions and embrace the switch to renewable energy. It is the kind of leadership that has the tiny countries of Niue, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu striving to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020, and my own Government to fully solarise the power for each and every one of our outer atoll island communities.

While these examples of Pacific leadership help to set the right tone, they of course will not be enough to bend the trajectory of global emissions set by the world's high-emitting countries and companies. For this reason, the Majuro Declaration challenged all governments, businesses and organisations to join our call for climate leadership, and register their own commitments to new and more ambitious climate action. While we are pleased with the support the Declaration has received so far from beyond the membership of the Pacific Islands Forum -- including the listing of commitments by the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the U.S. State of Hawaii -- we are now looking to others to follow their lead.

With the urgency of the climate crisis intensifying with each passing day, the UN Secretary-General's invitation to world leaders to attend a climate change summit in New York this September could not have come soon enough. Learning from the Copenhagen experience, the Secretary-General sees his 2014 summit as a stage to announce new collaborations and initiatives to accelerate action now, and not simply as a podium for countries to "commit to commit" ahead of Paris.

As Ban Ki-moon said himself in Warsaw in November, the summit must "propel us forward through concrete action" towards 2015. This is why 2014 must not merely be a "Year of Climate Action", as Mr Ban has labelled it, but rather a "Year of New Climate Action." In other words, we need to commit to do more now than we have committed to previously, including a new wave of climate action that sees us peaking global emissions before 2020.

It is in this spirit that we welcome positive signals from China as it prepares for new emissions standards and working carbon markets under its next Five Year Plan, and ongoing efforts by President Obama to implement his Climate Action Plan, including the phasing out of coal power stations in the United States. In contrast, Japan's decision to renege on its 25 per cent emission reduction target and the recent carbon price policy reversals in Australia are unhelpful blips on the otherwise steady course towards the low-carbon world economy. Everyone needs to play their part, especially those with the biggest carbon footprint, and those who count among their closest friends the vulnerable countries that will bear the brunt of their polluting ways.

For our part, we look forward to September's Summit with a renewed sense of hope, and a strong resolve to use 2014's ministerial meetings and diplomatic opportunities to develop new ideas and forge new partnerships that make a real dent in emissions now. One critical area of focus must be the energy sector, which is currently responsible for some two-thirds of global emissions.

While renewable energy is already the fastest growing source of power and expected to increase by 40 per cent in the next five years, we need to quickly accelerate the transition to clean, green and more efficient energy systems. Having recently achieved a record 59 per cent peaking in the renewables contribution to the power grid in Europe's biggest economy, Germany has shown us that it can be done. And the quicker it is done, the better and cheaper it will be. As the International Energy Agency has told us, for every one dollar not invested now in new clean energy, it will cost us more than $4 after 2020 to compensate for the missed opportunity to reduce emissions this decade.

While understanding the need and accepting the logic to act now, we continue to emit and emit. There are signs of progress, and yet humanity has the world barrelling towards 4 degrees or more of dangerous global warming. Our window to secure a climate future capable of sustaining my country's culture, its dignity and its territory is closing quickly.

Leaders must come to New York in September with their sights set high, and with bold new announcements that get us back on a pathway to a safe climate future. The European Union could play a catalytic role by recording internationally that it will easily overachieve on its current target to reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2020, and that this will enable deeper and more ambitious EU cuts under a new global agreement. Others would surely follow suit.

It is increasingly clear to political leaders of all persuasions that if they are prepared to set out a bold vision for ambitious climate action, their constituencies will stand with them, including big business, and they are all prepared to do the necessary work. The release of updated and more alarming scientific data from the IPCC later this year should reinforce the political resolve to act. If the science and summits of 2014 don't finally turn the tide, it is difficult to see what will. This is the battle of our generation, and 2014 is our moment.

Christopher J. Loeak is the President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and current Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum.

This article first appeared in New Europe's 'Our World in 2014'.

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