x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Sorting out global warming myths and who might be hit

The South Pacific nation of Tuvalu blames rising sea levels caused by global warming for threatening to wipe it off the map.

The South Pacific nation of Tuvalu blames rising sea levels caused by global warming for threatening to wipe it off the map. But before it sinks beneath the waves, it wants to be among the first countries to be powered entirely by renewable energy - and it would like rich nations to pay for its switch from diesel generators. "We look forward to the day when our nation offers an example to all - powered entirely by natural resources such as the sun and the wind," Kausea Natano, the Tuvaluan minister for public utilities and industries, said last week. "We are hoping to secure assistance from our traditional donor partners and any other funding assistance to achieve the ultimate goal," he added, setting 2020 as the target date, and estimating that US$20 million (Dh73.3m) should do the trick.

Tuvalu, whose roughly 12,000 residents live on low-lying coral atolls around the rims of extinct submarine volcanoes, joins nine other small nations that have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality in the next decade. But its status as a country allegedly facing an existential threat from global warming makes it special. To many environmentalists, Tuvalu is the sinking flagship of a flotilla of damning evidence on the dangerous consequences of pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Warnings about its imminent inundation due to rising sea levels have been regularly aired over the past two decades, first by globe-trotting Tuvaluan officials, and later by a growing chorus of environmentalists.

Fifteen years ago, addressing a UN conference, Otinielu Tausi, the deputy prime minister of the day, said his country was facing "a seemingly increasing number of natural disasters resulting from global climate change". "I wish to urge both developed and developing countries alike to modify their unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. These patterns, if allowed to continue, will inevitably lead to sea level rise and the disappearance of my country," he said.

But the prospect of Tuvaluans becoming "environmental refugees" did not curb population growth. Recently, Tuvalu's population has been growing at about 1.4 per cent a year, having mushroomed from about 5,000 people in the 1970s and a sustainable level of about 3,000 for most of the past three millennia. "We have many problems in regard to overcrowding and unsustainable population growth. These trends are beginning to impact severely on our environment and our economic development," Mr Tausi told the UN back in 1994.

Since then, Tuvalu's plight has kept a small army of climate scientists and oceanographers busy searching for evidence of the supposedly rising waters. Instead, several peer-reviewed studies have concluded that the local sea level has not changed much during the industrial age, and fell in the period from 1950 to 2000. That is not to say that global warming is a myth or that Tuvalu is not sinking. There are several reasons, to do with ocean currents and water temperature fluctuations, why trends in local sea levels might not track the global average.

As to whether Tuvalu is drowning, rising salinity levels in its soil and salt water bubbling to the surface of its fields, suggest that it is. But the subsidence could be due to the weight of buildings on land from which underground freshwater has been drained, or to a number of natural causes unrelated to climate change. Likewise, increasing numbers of islanders carting off sand to build homes and tourist resorts may be behind the loss of many beachheads.

However, Takao Shirasishi, the general manager of Kansai Electric Power, seemed unaware last year of the conflicting evidence. "The plight of Tuvalu versus the rising tide vividly represents the worst early consequence of climate change," he said, after Kansai and Tokyo Electric Power installed a $410,000 solar system on the roof of the nation's main football stadium. "There may be other, larger solar power installations in the world, but none could be more meaningful to customers than this one."

The two Japanese companies are members of the e8, an international non-profit organisation of 10 utilities from the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised countries. Earlier this month at a summit in Italy, G8 leaders promised to help poor nations cope with climate change. The Italian government has pledged funding for an $800,000 solar power system for a Tuvalu school. Even if climate change is not causing its troubles, solar electricity would be good for Tuvalu until its inhabitants are forced to abandon ship. At least it would relieve the struggling nation of the financial burden of importing about 5,000 litres of diesel a day. But investment and aid decisions should not be based on myth.

According to the UN, a number of poor Arab countries with low carbon dioxide emissions are facing climate change threats including increased desertification and water shortages. "The Arab region is one of those least responsible for the direct creation of the greenhouse effect. However, the region is also the nearest to becoming a direct victim of climate change," it said in its recent Arab Human Development Report.

Some Arab countries hope to improve their lot with solar projects to power water desalination plants. But myth has it that the Middle East, in collaboration with Big Oil, encouraged global warming by getting the world hooked on oil. That does not bode well for poor Arab states' chances of winning a share of the G8 climate-change pot. @Email:tcarlisle@thenational.ae Editorial, page a19