(SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt) — The world should confront climate change the way it does nuclear weapons, by agreeing to a non-proliferation treaty that stops further production of fossil fuels, a small island nation leader proposed Tuesday as vulnerable nations pushed for more action and money at international climate talks.
“We all know that the leading cause of climate crisis is fossil fuels,” Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano told his fellow leaders. So his country has “joined Vanuatu and other nations calling for a fossil fuels non-proliferation treaty… It’s getting too hot and there is very (little) time to slow and reverse the increasing temperature. Therefore, it is essential to prioritize fast acting strategies that avoids the most warming.”
Vanuatu and Tuvalu, along with other vulnerable nations, have been flexing their moral authority in negotiations, especially in light of mega climate disasters. The idea of a non-proliferation treaty for coal, oil and natural gas has been advanced by churches, including the Vatican, and some scientists, but Natano’s speech gives it a bigger boost in front of a global audience.
A year ago at climate talks in Glasgow, a proposal to call for a “phase out” coal — the dirtiest of the fossil fuels — was changed at the last minute to “phase down” by a demand from India, earning the wrath of small island nations and some vulnerable countries.
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Small island nation leaders also called for a global tax on the profits of fossil fuel corporations that are making billions of dollars of profit a day during a global energy crisis triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“While they are profiting the planet is burning,” said Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking on behalf of his and other small island nations.
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa called on similar nations to form a “countermanding bloc of the victims of climate change.’’
In a departure from the criticism that rich countries have so far endured from many developing nations’ leaders at this year’s international climate meeting, the president of Malawi praised leaders present in Egypt for simply showing up.
“The temptation to abstain from COP this year was great,” President Lazarus Chakwera said, referring to the talks by their U.N. acronym, “because of the great and unprecedented economic hardships your citizens are suffering in your own nation,” he said. “But you resisted this temptation and chose the path of courage.”
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Chakwerea said any agreements forged at the two-week meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh should recognize the different abilities of developed like the United States and high-productivity countries such as China on the one hand, and developing nations like his own on the other.
So far, China has insisted that it cannot be held to the same standards as developed economies such as the United States or Europe because it is still lifting millions of its citizens out of poverty. But there is growing pressure on Beijing to step up its climate efforts given its massive economic clout.
Jochen Flasbarth, a senior German official and veteran climate negotiator, said China only formally meets the criteria of a developing country.
“In truth it is the top emitter worldwide and it is also an extremely prosperous economy,” he said. “That’s why we expect, and this is also being done in some areas, that more responsibility is taken on (by China), nationally and internationally.”
Meanwhile, Guterres and leaders such as Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said it was time to make fossil fuel companies contribute to funds which would provide vulnerable countries with financial aid for the climate-related losses they are suffering.
“It is about time that these companies are made to pay a global carbon tax on their profits as a source of funding for loss and damage,” Antigua’s Browne said. “Profligate producers of fossil fuels have benefited from extortionate profits at the expense of human civilization.”
And if the small islands can’t get a global tax on fossil fuel profits, Browne suggested going to international courts to get polluters to pay for what they’ve done. A group of scientists from Dartmouth College calculated specific damages for all the world’s countries and how much was caused by other nations, saying it would work well in international court cases.
Browne also quoted William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ in sharing his frustration with lack of action.
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death,” Browne said. Despite 27 climate summits “tomorrow has not come. Governments and corporations come to the COP each year delivering grand statements with lofty commitments. But these commitments are only partially honored.”
The idea of a windfall tax on carbon profits has gained traction in recent months amid sky-high earnings for oil and gas majors even as consumers struggle to pay the cost of heating their homes and filling their cars. For the first time, delegates at this year’s U.N. climate conference are to discuss demands by developing nations that the richest, most polluting countries pay compensation for damage wreaked on them by climate change, which in climate negotiations is called “loss and damage.”
The U.S. mid-term elections were hanging over the talks Tuesday, with many environmental campaigners worried that defeat for the Democrats could make it harder for President Joe Biden to pursue his ambitious climate agenda.
Germany climate envoy Jennifer Morgan said the Biden administration’s recent climate law had given the United States “a higher level of standing” internationally.
Asked about the possible impact of the U.S. midterm election on the talks, Morgan said that individual votes “can’t change the fact that we’re in a climate emergency.”
Also hanging over the conference was the fate of one of Egypt’s most prominent jailed pro-democracy activists, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who has been imprisoned for most of the past decade. His family stepped up pleas for world leaders to win his release after he stepped up a longtime hunger strike. Abdel-Fattah stopped even drinking water on Sunday, the first day of the conference, vowing he is willing to die if not released, his family says.
The head of the U.N. human rights office called Tuesday for the immediate release of Abdel-Fattah amid concerns about his health.
Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the activist, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, “is in great danger. His dry hunger strike puts his life at acute risk.”
Rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani relayed Türk’s comments at a U.N. briefing on Tuesday and said that all activists and others affected by climate change should “have a seat at the table” at the U.N. climate conference that opened a day earlier in the Egyptian seaside resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Egypt’s longtime history of suppressing dissent has raised controversy over its hosting of the annual conference, known as COP 27, with many international climate activists complaining that restrictions by the host are quieting civil society.
On Tuesday, more world leaders were to take the stage, including Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif of Pakistan, where summer floods caused at least $40 billion in damage and displaced millions of people. After the speeches, the conference delegates will delve into negotiations on a range of issues — including for the first time on compensation, known as loss and damage.
Some of the strongest pleas for action came so far from leaders of poor nations that caused little of the pollution but often get a larger share of the weather-related damage.
Seth Borenstein and Samy Magdy contributed to this report.