From Lara Marlow - The Irish Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Nations urged to act on 'ambitious' climate targets LARA MARLOWE in New York

THERE WAS a certain weariness in President Mohamed Nasheed’s voice as he spoke behind the green malachite podium in the United Nations’ assembly hall.

His tiny republic in the Indian Ocean has unwittingly become “the world’s conscience on global warming . . . the canary in the coal mine”, he said.

It was extraordinary that the leader of an island of 2sq km, with a population of just 55,000, should create nearly as great an impact as President Barack Obama. Yet the heads of state and government listened intently to Mr Nasheed – for him, it was literally a question of life and death. If global warming continues, his island nation will be submerged.

Several speakers deplored the many thousands of hours that have been wasted over decades, but Mr Nasheed’s reference to the oft-repeated “charade” bore a special bitterness. “We in the Maldives desperately want to believe that one day our words will have an effect and so we continue to shout them even though, deep down, we know that you are not really listening,” he said.

The solution existed, Mr Nasheed continued. “Developed nations must acknowledge their historic responsibility for global warming and accept ambitious and binding emission reduction targets.” Developing countries must also accept binding targets on conditions that rich countries gave them the technology and finance to do so. Mr Nasheed spoke of the “lack of trust between countries, especially between developed and developing states”. The main disagreement, he noted, was: “Who should jump first? How far does the other side have to jump before we make our move? It is now in ALL of our national interests to jump first and jump far.” For all his eloquence, the leader of the small island could not compete with the star quality of Mr Obama, who was cheered when he took to the UN podium for the first time yesterday, an experience he will repeat when the general assembly officially opens this morning.

“No nation, however large or small, wealthy or poor, can escape the impact of climate change,” Mr Obama said. “Rising sea levels threaten every coastline.”

He quoted John F Kennedy, who said: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.” Although the US remains one of the world’s biggest polluters, it has made huge strides under the Obama presidency.

“The United States has done more to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution in the last eight months than in any other time in our history,” the US leader said. He boasted of his government’s “largest ever investment in renewable energy . . . aimed at doubling the generating capacity from wind and other renewable resources in three years”.

At the G20 summit in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday, he said he would work with his colleagues “to phase out fossil fuel subsidies”. Mr Obama said he had placed climate “at the top of our diplomatic agenda . . . We understand the gravity of the climate threat. We are determined to act and we will meet our responsibility to future generations.”

Yet he recognised “the hardest part of our journey is in front of us”. To the amusement of the UN media office, which distributed it to journalists, the Chinese delegation had President Hu Jintao’s speech bound with a red and gold embossed seal. After the stirring speeches by Mr Obama and Mr Nasheed, Mr Hu’s observation that climate change “is an issue arising in the course of human development . . . associated with both natural factors and human activities” fell decidedly flat.

“For developing countries, the top priority now is to grow economies, eradicate poverty and improve livelihood,” Mr Hu said. He repeated the words “developing” and “development” many times over, but made only vague commitments – a huge disappointment to the gathering.