Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me first of all to state very clearly that I am not an expert on the topic I will be addressing. Just like all of you I am a concerned citizen of the earth, and through my responsibilities in life I am also a concerned leader. I get worried when I read what the scientists have discovered through careful and responsible research. I worry about the immediate future, but then I am also deeply mindful about what the future could be. Will there be a future for my great grandchildren? What sort of planet will they come into? The thoughts I share today come out of these concerns.
We have to listen to what the scientists are telling us, but as individuals, we also have to adopt new lifestyles if we are to allow our planet to survive, meaning that we have to play our ole as guardians of planet earth. Only through this will we allow future generations to share in what we enjoy today. It is about every single one of us, the rich and poor, the multi-nationals and the isolated local farmer, the West, the South, the consumer and the producer.
We are all in it together for we are now all agreed that indeed we live in a global village. In the Seychelles, where I come from, we were brutally awoken to that reality when the tsunami hit Asia and the Indian Ocean. Millions of miles away from the epicenter, we were affected, people lost their lives, buildings and bridges were destroyed. From that sad day in December 2005, whenever we hear of any earthquake in Asia we are more attentive. But the earthquake did not bring only fear in our people, it also enriched our vocabulary, for today the word tsunami is a creole word! Every person now knows what a tsunami is, and this brings with it sympathy and caring for those affected.
The most obvious impact of climate change, as the scientists have been telling us, will be warmer/colder temperatures, more humid conditions and a rise in sea level. Extreme temperatures around our planet will change it completely in the long term, making cold regions warm and perhaps making some arid regions more humid, all with effects on vegetation and lifestyle.
But, for our imagination, it is the consequences of a rise in sea levels that are more immediate and the easiest to grasp. Those of us who live on small islands, as we do in the Seychelles, can imagine quite easily what it could be like. We live close to the sea. It is never out of sight and never, never out of mind. You don’t need to have the imagination of a science fiction writer to picture what could happen if the sea level rose by two metres.
In our region of the Indian Ocean, some places are particularly vulnerable. It has Bangladesh, one of the flattest countries on the earth, among the most densely populated and already among the poorest. We have the Maldives, which is a country of low-lying coral islands only a couple of metres above sea level at the best of times. These two are extreme examples but other places are at the mercy of sea level rise too.
There are many coastal regions of South-east Asia and Africa that are low enough to be affected and certainly the islands of the Indian Ocean too. Seychelles is a good example. Some of our islands are flat coralline islands, just like the Maldives. Our main islands are granitic and with peaks that rise steeply above the sea, but, and this is a big but, over 70% of our people live on the low coastal strip around these high peaks and up to 90% of economic infrastructure and activity is located on this low coastal strip. So we would be very much at the mercy of a rise in sea level such as is being predicted.
We don’t really know how the rise in sea levels will be manifested. Will it be a slow, almost imperceptible rise that will only be noticed as coastal plants begin to die when the level of salt water beneath the soil increases; or will large waves begin to wash ashore more frequently, inundating coastal lands, killing crops and tearing up infrastructure?
It goes without saying then that a rise in sea-levels will have devastating consequences on the economy of such areas which are vulnerable. Human settlement, agriculture, tourism, industry, fisheries and services will all be affected.
The consequences will of course be profound for poverty alleviation and economic growth in these vulnerable areas. Homes and livelihoods will be destroyed. The scope for economic activity will be reduced and production will face serious setbacks. But, in all this, uncertainty reigns. What will be the effect of rising temperatures in the atmosphere on sea-temperatures? What effect will this in turn have on fish stocks, which are a prime source of food and revenue for our region?
A recent study by Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in San Diego University, reveals that large areas of the oceans, especially in the tropical zones, hold low levels of oxygen. They are saying that the reason behind the dwindling levels of oxygen in the ocean is closely linked to global warming. Warm waters hold less oxygen than cold ones. The prediction is that these ‘Open ocean oxygen minimum zones’ (OMZ) will extend through global warming, thus having a major effect on fish stocks. Already the research has shown that in relative terms oxygen levels are 15% poorer in the north Atlantic and off west Africa. The rise in sea temperatures some years back caused major coral bleaching, and had a catastrophic impact on coastal fishing in my country.
‘Adaptation’ to the effects of climate change is becoming a familiar phrase, a buzz-word even. Of course, countries have to begin to consider adaptation strategies very seriously. There are possibilities to be considered for planning, if the country is large enough to provide room for development away from the immediate threat of the sea. Even slight adaptations in planning agriculture or buildings could make a difference of a hundred years or so in how much an area or a facet of human life is affected.
But while we pursue adaptation, let us spare a thought for those areas where you cannot even think of adaptation. For Bangladesh and the Maldives, there is not even any place to run to. The same applies for some areas of Seychelles and other small island developing states (SIDS).
So before we think of adaptation, I would like to spare a word about tackling climate change. Nowhere have I seen it said that climate change is irreversible or unstoppable. The causes that have been given for climate change in the context in which we are talking have mostly been related to human activity. There is already a lot of attention on changing the types of activity that cause climate change, although we have not seen the kind of change that is necessary to make a difference. The world has just started giving its mind to this problem. So I want to say, let us not divert our attention. Let us spread and multiply the efforts.
I know we cannot turn back the world. We cannot un-invent the motor car. We cannot un-invent factories and airplanes. But I believe humankind can change these inventions in order to survive.
There is one word that sums up enormous possibilities for changing human behaviour and human activity, including in the very difficult matter of climate change. That one word is EDUCATION. I don’t believe we have exhausted the possibility of education in tackling climate change. Generations can learn to change. Here I want to give an example of wildlife clubs established in my country. They have now become real agents for change. By appreciating nature, children are now growing up with the attitude of conservation instead of destruction. Whereas 20 years ago dolphins and turtles were seen as food sources, today our children understand that destroying these animals means destroying our planet and ourselves. If the world takes the task seriously, it can muster the resources that are required to educate people to tackle climate change. It is very hard of course, but adaptation may not be easier. And for some, it is not an option.
It is obvious that if we want a continued existence on our planet earth, the world has to act together. Preserving our planet is not an option. It is a must and everyone is a player.
I thank you.