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15 May 2015 15:00

The Carbon Brief Interview: Tony de Brum

Sophie Yeo


Sophie Yeo

15.05.2015 | 3:00pm
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Tony de Brum

Tony de Brum is the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, a small nation of coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean and one of the most vulnerable countries to sea level rise. He previously served as Minister-in-Assistance to the President, and has led calls at the UN for stronger action on climate change.

On reluctance to act on climate change: “Some of these nations are confused as to whether they’re developing countries or developed countries, or some that want to be both, to take advantage of the benefits of being one or the other in one package.”

On the small island states negotiating bloc: “It is a platform that allows for the smallest of the vulnerable states to have as loud a voice as anybody else.”

On the small island states’ negotiating strategy: “In terms of keeping the islands together and promoting their interests as a unit, it has worked. But have the outcomes of that effort been as encouraging? No. But neither has any other sector in the climate change debate and effort.”

On Paris: “What we really need to do is focus on what we want to come out of Paris and make sure that it is not a suicide note.”

On migration: “The polluting states must not see the availability of destinations for displaced people as an excuse to continue their behaviour as usual.”

On the unstoppable collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet: “It is something that concerns the Marshall Islands now.”

On US politics: “The Republicans might have different reasons for loving the Marshalls than the Democrats do, but the relationship is still very strong.”

On loss and damage: “I think it’s going to be one of the most difficult things to come away with come Paris.”

On the Green Climate Fund: “I don’t want to see bureaucratic layers of NGOs and other organisations establish themselves between the source of the fund and the need.”


CB: As a small developing country, the Marshall Islands have relatively little political or economic influence over some of the bigger emitters like the US and China, except in shipping where you have the third largest registry in the world. This week at the International Maritime Organization, you used this influence to propose an emissions reduction target for the shipping industry. Was this the last card, the last powerful card, that the Marshall Islands had to play in the world of climate policy?

TdB: We would like to think there are still some cards out there, but this was an important one. We wanted to make sure that the IMO plays its part and does its contribution to combat climate change. We recognise the importance of shipping throughout the world and that it will continue to expand as the world’s economy expands, but we want the industry to realise that, for that sector, they need to generate their own plans to keep emissions at a level that will be consistent with our efforts to keep it under 1.5 or 2C, because even if all the other efforts in the world went as scheduled and everybody lives up to his pledge as one must do, if the shipping sector does not come along with its own limitations, then the whole exercise is for nought

CB: What are these other cards left to play that you spoke about?

TdB: Well, our cards from the beginning have been a small country, loud voice. We don’t really have that kind of leverage on anyone. Even our shipping registry, although large and of substantial importance to our economy, its voice is in the IMO context, and that is still a sort of mystery to small island countries: what the IMO does, how it conducts its business. There’s a lot of insistence on anonymity, protection of identity, and all of those things that make working within the IMO not an easy or pleasant task for small island countries.

CB: Were you disappointed that some of the countries who you might have thought would be allies in this IMO battle perhaps didn’t come on board as enthusiastically as you had hoped?

TdB: Some countries in that grouping yesterday disappointed us outright because we did not expect them to take the position that they did in wanting to postpone any action. The Marshall Islands are very, very pleased with the countries that actually voiced support for our proposal, but we were disappointed the IMO itself did not accept that show of strength as a signal to do its part to move forward instead of saying, “We’ve taken note of the filing and we’ll wait until somebody else does something about it first.”

CB: You mentioned the 1.5C target and I know the small island states have been a powerful advocate for this. Is the 1.5C target politically possible in Paris, considering that countries are already embedding a 2C target into their INDCs?

TdB: The science is in place, the technology is in place, all we need is the political will. Everybody’s debating the political will, but everybody’s saying, “Well, the way we look at it, we don’t have the political will.” Is it possible that we can, in fact, have it? Yes, it’s possible, but as long as many of the players in this climate change debate, as long as they think that it’s nothing urgent or requiring immediate action, then the political will will not emerge. But if we can convince them that delaying this is not just something that’s going to save their own economies and business for the future, but that the moment the small island countries begin to go under, it’s already too late to save the world. And maybe we can light a fire under some of the more recalcitrant nations that do not wish to take part in this right now. There’s a lot of confusion because some of these nations are confused as to whether they’re developing countries or developed countries, or some that want to be both, to take advantage of the benefits of being one or the other in one package, but we think that cooler heads will prevail. We must come away from this Paris COP with an agreement that instills confidence that we are, in fact, mustering the political will to do something about climate change. Otherwise, we are on a path to climate change chaos.

CB: But, in some ways, the 1.5C target doesn’t really seem to have been given a fair chance, since the UN is doing a review of the target, whether it could be tightened to 1.5, and that’s not due to conclude until Paris.

TdB: The 1.5, 2C goals were not set by us. They were set by the UN and the scientific advisors way back, and we have kept at least our part of that bargain to make sure that we do our part, small island and other vulnerable states. But if that’s changing, and if, as some people predict, we’re talking more about a 3.5 and a 4C increase in temperature, then you are already condemning the small island vulnerable states to oblivion. As it is now, we are already experiencing the effects of climate change in terms of more frequent storms, more intense storms, higher king tides, inundation of our agriculture, all of those things are happening now. Droughts and floods at the same time, a confused nature, as it were. So anything over 2C is a threat to us.

CB: The Marshall Islands is part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) negotiating bloc in the UN, but this is a collection of different countries with different vulnerabilities, so I was wondering how do the Marshall Islands view their role within this bloc?

TdB: We consider AOSIS to be a very important grouping within the UNFCCC and our other efforts at promoting climate change sanity. It is a platform that allows for the smallest of the vulnerable states to have as loud a voice as anybody else. In the reality of things in the UN structure, subgroupings of the states are very, very helpful, and we must preserve that option, keep it going as a unit. We have had some setbacks in recent times, in organisation, keeping the members singing the same tune, but I think that’s pretty much resolved for the time being. We have both Seychelles and the Maldives coming online as chair, and I think we’re back on track. We hope it will be strengthened as time goes on.

CB: AOSIS has typically had a close relationship with the EU, but considering the EU has struggled somewhat to maintain its image as a climate leader over the past couple of years, do you think that that relationship has changed at all?

TdB: That relationship was affected by both internal AOSIS changes as well as EU changes, but I think we’ve gotten over that. The EU’s still a very important partner, not just to AOSIS as an organisation, but to the vulnerable states as members of this exercise. We consider, for example, even in the IMO context, the support of the EU as absolutely crucial and must be part of that balance. They are also our best partners in developing alternate energy and sustainable energy, which must go hand-in-hand with preservation of land and resources in our part of the world.

CB: But do you think there could be a danger that AOSIS provides a sort of moral cover to the EU?

TdB: I don’t think so. There might be that kind of an observation from without, but I have not felt that reflection from within, either from AOSIS or in our relationship with the EU.

CB: Okay, has your strategy within AOSIS and as the Marshall Islands, has it worked so far in the UN negotiations?

TdB: In terms of keeping the islands together and promoting their interests as a unit, it has worked. But have the outcomes of that effort been as encouraging? No. But neither has any other sector in the climate change debate and effort. But it makes sense for us to have that organisation so there is a unified approach and also some elements of administrative control of what the islands promote, what the islands view as current, future or long-term issues, and the availability of technical assistance and resources from our development partners for the use of the small island vulnerable states.

CB: Ahead of Paris, are you planning any changes to your strategy that could make the group more effective?

TdB: There needs to be closer coordination between the various groups. The vulnerable states have three or four different subgroups. The Pacific islands has a Micronesia challenge, for example, Caribbean challenge. If we more closely coordinate those efforts so that they don’t become splintered groups, but they become groups working together, then I think we will be more effective. But there is a very short time between now and December, and assessment of organisational structures comes at rather a late time. What we really need to do is focus on what we want to come out of Paris and make sure that it is not a suicide note.

CB: I’d like to touch on the subject of migration. When it comes to migration, there seems to be quite a variety of attitudes among the small island states. Countries like Kiribati seem to be actively preparing for it, and others battling against that idea. How do you think the narrative around migration needs to be handled?

TdB: First of all, we do not see the option of being displaced as a desirable outcome from this exercise and, having said that, it is prudent for leaders to remember that they have to plan for any eventuality and they must have a list of options of what are we going to do if people need to be displaced. If you turn that point around, the polluting states must not see the availability of destinations for displaced people as an excuse to continue their behaviour as usual, because that should not be used to justify continuation of high emissions and pollution because it’s okay, we just take them and place them some place else. That should not be part of the debate. People do not want to be detached from their homelands. It’s their soul. If you were to take the Marshallese community as it is now and say, we’re going to move you some place else, that’s the end of a culture and a people and a tradition. That’s tantamount to even worse atrocities in the past in destroying the soul of a society.

CB: So, some people have tried to frame migration as an adaptation strategy. Where do you stand on that?

TdB: That’s exactly what I’ve just said – displacement is not adaptation. Displacement is a reaction to an already critical climate issue.

CB: Scientists have said that the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is unstoppable and could cause up to four metres of sea level rise. While this is projected to happen centuries into the future, is this something that concerns the Marshall Islands now?

TdB: It is something that concerns the Marshall Islands now. Two days ago, I had to keep watch from my room here in London while my constituency was battered by eight to 12 foot waves from the west, which is not very common. This was a backlash from Typhoon Dolphin, which is now about to hit Guam as we speak. Conditions like this reflect that fact there is, in fact, a rise in ocean levels, and there seems to be a tendency for it to gather around five-to-ten degrees above the equator, where Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshalls are, so the rate at which the sea level rise is affecting the islands is higher than anywhere else in the world. Yes, it is of concern to us, but there are also ways to deal with it. We’re talking adaptation. Much of the vulnerable areas in the small island atoll states are areas that human beings have already interfered with – the natural flow of water, the tides, where we built seawalls, where we built causeways. Those are the most vulnerable now, and we now know we should never have done that in the first place. We should not have interfered with nature’s own way of keeping the atolls intact. If we dealt with that issue now as part of our early adaptation and restore rather than built up, I think we have a chance at buying time to either do something else with our geography or find out other options. Stilts: why not homes on stilts for the time being? But all communities in the Pacific and other ocean countries you will see are built around the ocean. It reflects the synergy of island living and your dependence on the ocean. That can continue to be nurtured and fostered. But it cannot be if people are thinking, never mind, we’ll just [inaudible].

CB: You have something of a special relationship with the United States through the Compact of Free Association. Have you ever broached the subject of migrating people there if it becomes necessary?

TdB: We already have the right to migrate to the United States under the Compact of Free Association. That was part of the original deal, realising two things: that the islands have a nuclear legacy that is still uncertain, and that, secondly, we needed a pressure valve, sort of, for education and health. People wanted to seek that in the United States. We’re still free to do so. There are some adjustments that need to be made in that arrangement, but, again, the fact that we are free to move to the United States whenever we want doesn’t mean that the United States is free to pollute because it doesn’t matter. It does matter. The United States is a very close friend of the Marshall Islands, and will always be a close friend of the Marshall Islands. Sometimes different leaderships interpret that friendship in different ways, but the people-to-people relationship between the Marshall Islands and the United States continues to be strong and it will continue to be strengthened with the fact we have communities, Marshallese communities, in the United States now that nurture that friendship.

CB: Speaking of the different leaderships in the United States, are you concerned or fearful for what a Republican government in the future could mean for the Marshall Islands and its climate change policies?

TdB: Republicans and Democrats are basically human beings, regardless of what party they belong to. We have very good friends in the Republican party, we have extremely good friends in the Democratic party, and no, that does not worry me. The Republicans might have different reasons for loving the Marshalls than the Democrats do, but the relationship is still very strong. We are also part of the United States Alliance for Peace and Security throughout the world. It’s a permanent relationship. Neither the US nor the Marshalls can change that as a government. So we treasure that and we think it is a meaningful alliance for the future.

CB: Do you think big corporations have a responsibility to pay the bill for some of the losses and damages suffered by the Marshall Islands and small islands states?

TdB: The issue of loss and damage continues to hound the negotiators of climate change, because no one wants to admit liability for anything that happens. But we went through that same process in our nuclear relationship with the United States. Many people are still owed great amounts of money for claims that were adjudicated in an arrangement agreed to by both the United States and the Marshall Islands. So adjudicated claims now are ten to one what was paid, or even more. In other words, for physical injury, only about 10% of the claims have been paid – or 10% value of the claims have been received by the claimants. But the money that was originally set aside for those has been exhausted.

CB: So, with loss and damage, do you think getting it agreed is one thing, and maybe implementing it will be another challenge altogether?

TdB: Both steps are going to be difficult, getting a mechanism in place and then implementing it.

CB: But with corporations specifically – because at the moment the discussion is centered around the rich countries paying to the poorer countries – do you think the responsibility needs to shift towards those who are, perhaps, more directly responsible?

TdB: You know, incredibly that also was part of the issue with the claims on nuclear, because many of the activities that were carried out in the name of conducting tests were carried out by private companies in contract with the United States government. So where do you draw the line? Where do companies become liable and governments not? Or is there such a thing? Can you separate public liability in terms of governmental entities, vis a vis the private sector? There are arguments on either side. I don’t see anything at the end of that debate tunnel at this point.

CB: A bit of a dead end?

TdB: I think it’s going to be one of the most difficult things to come away with come Paris.

CB: In terms of the science, how do you think the Marshall Islands could be better served by the scientific community?

TdB: We are being served very well, and the flow of information from UN agencies, including the UNFCCC, has been extremely smooth and easy to understand. I’ve made comments on this before. The willingness of our development partners to set up early warning systems, you can do that in other parts of the world with some credibility, but when it comes to islands that sit barely two metres above sea level and you come in with a multimillion dollar warning system that says, when the siren goes off you should evacuate or seek shelter, it doesn’t make sense for a small island. If the siren goes off, what do you do? Steal a flotation, that’s what you do. There’s nowhere to run. Even in the longer term, if they tell us you have to move your community inland to be farther away from the shore and the protection that it affords, we can’t do that because if you move inland you’re also moving closer to the other side of the ocean, so some of the solutions that they’re talking about, that the scientific community is describing, may not be as applicable to the small island communities.

CB: So, with money from the Green Climate Fund expected to be appropriated very soon, what projects would you like to see going ahead in the Marshall Islands?

TdB: Well, I certainly would want to see one thing. I don’t want to see bureaucratic layers of NGOs and other organisations establish themselves between the source of the fund and the need. We’ve been complaining for years now that our resources to deal with some of these issues we have with climate change, we’ve been unable to marry up that resource with the need, the funds with a target population, because of multiple layers of red tape and bureaucracy. But we think we have sufficiently made that clear to the powers that be in this process, that they have to allow for the most vulnerable countries with least capacity to get up in front of the line, rather than to stand in the  same way we’ve done for years, where we continue to be unable, lack the capacity, to tap these resources, and we end up at the bottom of the line on all counts.

CB: I have two more questions if I may. One quite quick, which is how is the Marshall Islands getting on with preparing its INDC, and what more can you offer that you’re not already doing?

TdB: I thought you’d never ask. We’re doing very well, thank you. We have assistance from Germany to put together INDCs. They are now in the review process. We have set up a mechanism for stakeholders to have adequate input, and we expect to be able to file before the end of this quarter [July].

CB: My final question is, is there a danger that focusing on the critical vulnerability of small island states, is there a danger that people in far-away countries, who maybe have not even heard of some of these islands, turn away from the problem of climate change because it seems too insurmountable and maybe too difficult to even think about?

TdB: Well, that’s the danger of small island countries with big mouths promoting this issue. I think you recognise it. But there is a possibility, there’s always a danger of spooking potential partners in this process, but what is the alternative? If we were to keep quiet, our friends in Finland would probably not be contributing like they are now to some of the causes of climate change in the Pacific. Somebody’s got to bring it to their attention. But we also must be careful not to create a picture that people would perceive as the end of the line, that there is really no solution. For example, let’s talk about 3C versus 1.5 or 2. That can be quite devastating in terms of keeping people’s interest and motivation to contribute to prevention of climate change impact.

Main image: Tony De Brum at Regional Ocean Challenges: Pathways to Climate Finance for Small Island Developing States.
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