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Lessons from COVID-19 and the fight against the climate crisis

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Tuvalu\'s foreign minister did his COP26 statement like no other by speaking behind a podium at sea, standing in knee-deep water. Minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe delivering his remarks to COP26 in seawater by making a pre-recorded statement at sea to address about rising sea levels affecting Pacific nations, such as Tuvalu, Fongafale, Tuvalu, 5 November 2021 (Photo: Tuvalu government/Reuters).

In Brief

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed great difficulties on the battle against sea-level rise for small island developing states. But policymakers can learn lessons in crisis management from the pandemic to develop a plan of action to combat the climate crisis.


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Of all the challenges facing small island developing states, the rise in sea level is the most urgent threat. Most parts of small island states are in low-lying coastal areas. In some states, a large part of their population is living within 5 meters above sea level. This makes these states extremely vulnerable to the effects of a higher sea level such as surface flooding, maritime ecosystem degradation and saltwater intrusion into arable land.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused a reduction in government revenue necessary for climate action. Tourism has long been the main economic sector for many small island developing states, but in the wake of COVID-19 tourist numbers declined by 70 per cent in 2020. This domestic revenue shortfall has forced small island developing states to cut expenditure on climate-related activities. Developed nations have also cut foreign aid, prioritising spending that tackles the immediate consequences of COVID-19 and contributes to recovery plans.

Many planned talks, conferences and negotiations on mitigating climate change and rising seas have been cancelled due to COVID-19. For example, the recently concluded COP26 summit in November 2021 was postponed from 2020.

COVID-19 has also negatively impacted media coverage of climate change. The media has shifted to focus more on the COVID-19 pandemic, while media coverage on climate change has decreased considerably.

But the battle against COVID-19 can leave many valuable lessons for policymakers from small island developing states to apply to the ongoing rising sea level challenge.

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the sea level rise issue could be regarded as crises of humanity. While the pandemic has taken the lives of approximately 5.4 million people and dramatically disrupted society, rising seas also threaten to submerge many countries, especially small island developing states, and cause mass population displacement. Both issues require quick actions — the longer the inaction continues, the higher the future cost. These crises risk developing in unprecedented ways that people cannot accurately predict.

A lesson derived from the pandemic is the importance of preparedness. Countries with experience facing epidemics, such as the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak, had strengthened their public health facilities and enhanced their citizens’ awareness about the risk of infectious diseases. Thanks to better preparedness, such countries tended to perform more effectively in containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small island developing states should prepare themselves to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels. Some island states have already taken action — Tuvalu, Fiji, Kiribati and the Maldives have constructed seawalls and relocated low-lying communities to higher ground. But these policies are not enough as numerous seawalls have been poorly made while the relocation policy is controversial owing to the potential loss identity. Small island developing states need to prepare more adequately to build their resilience. Actions include, but are not limited to, improving current defence infrastructure like seawalls, mangrove preservation and beach nourishment, developing flood notification systems and switching to clean energy.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the necessity of global emergency declarations. For instance, after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, it caused a significant increase in public awareness and state actions. The WHO’s declaration also facilitated collaboration among states and relevant stakeholders to contain the virus.

A global state of climate emergency is yet to be declared. Several countries have not done enough to fulfil their climate commitments and emission reduction pledges. An emergency declaration provides an incentive for the international community to solve other disputed issues related to sea-level rise, namely the recognition of climate refugees and the potential change in maritime boundaries under Articles 3 and 4 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As nations on the frontline of the sea level rise crisis, small island developing states need to voice their concerns and demand an international official recognition of climate emergency.

Another lesson from the fight against COVID-19 is transnational cooperation. Had states, health-related international organisations and non-government organisations not cooperated, COVID-19 would have continued to spread rapidly. Over the last two years, actors from different levels have shared data, established a common framework for related regulations and provided vulnerable states with medical equipment and vaccines.

Concerted international actions are key to overcoming the problem of rising sea levels. Small island developing states alone cannot tackle such a complex problem. They should accelerate cooperation with other states and relevant organisations to slow down sea-level rise. Areas where wealthier states can contribute are research, technology transfer, funding for countries at risk and greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected policies to tackle sea-level rise. Despite this, the pandemic can be a boon if policymakers consider the lessons learned from fighting COVID-19.

Nguyen Hoang Anh Thu is a senior research fellow at the Vanguard Think Tank for Trans-Pacific Relations.

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