Ban Ki-Moon: What We Can All Learn From Small Islands

You may know the world’s Small Island Developing States as prized destinations, places of outstanding natural beauty, vibrant culture and music appreciated around the globe.

There is no denying the draw of these countries, which are home to 63.2 million people. The Caribbean region alone is one of the most visited in the world, welcoming more than 21 million visitors each year.

Yet there is much more to this diverse global coalition of nations, which have always been a priority for me as Secretary-General. Many of the challenges they face confront us all, and warrant our collective action.

While small in total, the land size of these island nations does not reflect their importance as stewards of nature’s wealth on land and sea. They are custodians of 30 per cent of the 50 largest exclusive economic zones and play an important role in protecting the oceans.

In fact, this group of nations makes a contribution to global biodiversity that is out of proportion to their land area. Many are biodiversity “hot spots”, containing some of the richest reservoirs of plants and animals on the planet. They are home to many endemic species — meaning that they are found nowhere else on Earth.

Yet, despite their wealth of culture, tradition and many of nature’s resources, Small Island Developing States face a range of challenges. For a significant number, their remoteness affects their ability to be part of the global supply chain, increases import costs – especially for energy – and limits their competitiveness in the tourist industry.

And many are extremely vulnerable to the immediate effects of climate change – from the devastating impact of hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones to the threat of sea level rise.

I have written here several times about the need to combat climate change – and you need look no further than Small Island Developing States to make the case for climate action.

In 2011, I travelled to Kiribati, a low-lying Pacific-island nation, where I met a boy who shared his fears about being drowned by seawater when he falls asleep at night. This may sound dramatic, but the highest point in Kiribati is only two metres above sea level. The country is among the most vulnerable to sea level rise and beach erosion. Others face a similar fate. A 1-metre rise would make the Maldives disappear underwater completely, while a 50-centimetre sea rise will result in Grenada losing 60 per cent of its beaches.

Yet the people there have not been defeated by fear. Instead, they have stepped up and shown extraordinary leadership and resilience. Despite having contributed little to the problem, they are pioneering solutions for a more sustainable future. They have called upon their ingenuity, innovation and use of traditional knowledge to combat climate change and help protect not only themselves but the world’s – our – oceans and biodiversity.

Some, such as Cuba, are leaders in disaster preparedness and prevention. Others, such as the Maldives, Tuvalu and some Caribbean countries, are working to achieve “climate neutrality” through the use of renewable energy and other approaches.

Small Island Developing States are on the front lines of climate change, but they are not alone. Forty per cent of the global population lives within 150 kilometres of a coast, often in crowded low-lying cities vulnerable to storms and tidal surges. Most recently, we saw the devastating impact of extreme weather when Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Yolanda, killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines alone.

In one way or another, we are all experiencing the effects of climate change, and these will increase as global temperatures rise. That is why I am constantly sounding the call for urgent action. And it is why I am convening a Climate Summit on 23 September in New York to mobilize political will for a legal agreement on climate change in 2015, deliver concrete new commitments and spark a race to the top in climate action.

Last week, the UN launched the International Year of Small Island Developing States – an opportunity to appreciate their resilience, rich cultural heritage and global contribution. While diverse, these countries share a common commitment to ensure a brighter future for us here now and for the generations to come.

Let’s look to the people of this remarkable group of nations for inspiration. Let’s follow their lead and take decisive action to set our world on a sustainable path. We may not all live on a small island – but we do all share a planet and the responsibility to protect it.