From rising seas to the loss of fresh water, islands are among the most vulnerable nations to global warming. Hurricanes, expected to become more ferocious with climate change, pummeled Caribbean island nations into crisis this summer. Irma destroyed nearly every car and building on the island of Barbuda and swelled the population of Antigua overnight as thousands of Barbudans sought shelter. Maria knocked out power across the United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and left Dominica in tatters.
Small islands also are among the smallest contributors to climate change, producing less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industrialized world, their leaders say, owes some recompense for the disasters these vulnerable nations will suffer in the years ahead.
“The very thing that makes them wealthy is contributing to our vulnerability,” said Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda. “It’s only fair that they provide some level of compensation.”
But hopes are waning that island nations will see a major increase in financial support to help address the consequences of climate change. So, too, is an effort here to expand ways for nations to adapt to future disasters. Money is not forthcoming here, and President Trump has declared that the United States, historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, will exit the Paris agreement.
In the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, rising sea levels are causing salt water to intrude into underground fresh water supplies. In order to adapt, the country is trying to build rainwater cisterns and new pipe systems to ensure that its people have safe drinking water supplies.
It’s a costly task, and the Maldives was one of the first countries to apply for aid from the Green Climate Fund, which was set up in 2010 by wealthy countries to help poorer nations adapt to climate change. Yet the fund has been slow to start and the country waited two years before seeing any of the promised funding.
“That’s too long to wait,” said Thoriq Ibrahim, the minister of energy and environment in the Maldives. “There’s no use having a fund somewhere if you can’t access it quickly.”
While most wealthy countries agree in principle that they should deliver more aid, the details of how to do it have been bogged down in the slow bureaucratic processes of United Nations talks. On Friday delegates here did create an expert group to formally include the issue of helping vulnerable countries with immediate needs, known as loss and damage, in the United Nations climate process. There is no money attached to it, though, nor means to raise any.
So far, the biggest news came midweek, when Germany and Britain announced funding for a long-discussed partnership to promote insurance coverage in island nations vulnerable to disasters. Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the attorney general of Fiji, said that only 10 percent of the island’s properties were insured, which made recovery from disasters like Cyclone Winston — which devastated the island in 2016 — much slower.
Yet there’s also wide recognition that insurance is, at best, a stopgap measure. “It can help people recover from floods or cyclones. But it doesn’t help against slow onset events like sea-level rise — no one will insure against that,” said Harjeet Singh, global head of climate change for ActionAid International. He also noted that many of the details of the new insurance proposal were still vague, like how much relatively poor island countries would have to pay in premiums.
Some island officials, frustrated by the slowness of the United Nations process, have decided to take matters into their own hands.
The Seychelles, for instance, has been promoting its debt swap program, started in 2015 with the help of The Nature Conservancy, in which a group of investors agreed to restructure $30 million of the country’s debt if the island agreed to protect 30 percent of its ocean habitat. The country plans to channel the money into measures like protecting coral reefs that shield the island from storm surges but are vulnerable to rising ocean temperatures.
Ronald Jumeau, the ambassador from the Seychelles to the United Nations, has largely stayed away from the formal climate negotiations this week, instead talking about similar innovative financing arrangements with philanthropists and private investors who have showed up in Bonn. He argued that island nations may have to look outside the United Nations process for help.
“We all know what the problem is. Why depress ourselves by sitting around the table and moaning about it?” Mr. Jumeau said. “Too many people are fixated on this government process. I’m going to where the money is.”