Ideas
January 6, 2022 8:00 AM EST
Surangel S. Whipps Jr. is president of the Republic of Palau.

Typically, much of the climate change discussion refers to it as a “threat.” But the reality is, for many on earth, the crisis is already here. Many small-island developing states have already suffered climate-related losses of livelihood, security, and welfare. My country, Palau, has been ravaged by the climate crisis, suffering two major typhoons that resulted in a loss of more than half of our national GDP.

Our lives have been engulfed by sea-level rise for two decades. King tides habitually flow into our homes. Mudslides are common along the only road to our hospital and main business center during increasingly frequent and intense storms. It is only a matter of time before a typhoon floods the corridors of our only hospital, wreaking havoc on our already strained public-health system. These once seasonal occurrences now exacerbate our existing health, environment and economic crises.

On the world’s stage, we and those suffering similar realities have demanded bold action and robust delivery of community-­centric adaptation and mitigation. Yet the voices of these Indigenous people are drowned out as though by the winds and rain that pummel their shores. That’s despite the fact that Pacific small-island nation-states combined are responsible for a mere 0.03% of global emissions.

Meanwhile, powerful economies continue to discharge poisonous emissions along with unfulfilled pledges to fund losses and damages. Sadly, international platforms like COP26 have been feeble sounding boards resulting in promises leading to disappointment and false solutions that dilute the problems. The injustice is that the largest emitters are not held accountable for our plight.

Given this dilemma, Palau has joined the Commission of Small Island States (COSIS) on Climate Change and International Law to seek justice that advances the basic principle that the polluter must pay. COSIS aims to be the first to bring a case of this kind to the U.N. International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. We hope that our case will help determine the obligations of countries under international law and hold polluters accountable.

Palau was the first member of COSIS from the Alliance of Small Island States. Following our work at the U.N. General Assembly and COP26, in 2022 we hope to bring in all small-island countries in pursuing judicial action through international courts. This will be a priority at the Our Ocean Conference, which Palau will host in April.

Like schools of surgeonfish that unite in the face of an imminent threat, the global community must come together in vision, voice and action to combat the alarming realities of the climate crisis. Allies must hasten their stride into a persuasive march toward real progress on the reduction of emissions and prompt delivery of climate financing.

Palau’s people are resilient. Until the world corrects its course, we will continue to adapt one day at a time. We will mobilize our scarce resources to move our hospital to higher ground; clear the debris and repair our homes and businesses after each coming storm; and continue to collaborate with partners and allies to collectively address future adversities.

I and other Pacific leaders look to our culture and environment for wisdom to withstand these uncertain times. Yet we know wisdom without capacity cannot save us. Palau joins other small-island states and Indigenous peoples across the globe in calling on the international community to make 2022 a year of accountability, reciprocity and significant investments in adequate safeguards that ensure basic human rights for the world, enabling us to fulfill our responsibility as custodians of the earth to transfer our lands, our ocean and our cultures to future generations.


This essay is part of a series on concrete goals the world should aim for in 2022 in order to put us on track to avert climate change-related disaster. Read the rest here.

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