As climate-vulnerable developing countries incur higher costs from a problem they did not create, it becomes even more difficult for them to service their debts and pursue economic development. Nowhere is the injustice more obvious than in island states facing the prospect of complete submersion.

Scientists have long warned that the ocean is rising by a few millimeters every year. To many around the world, that might not sound like much. But in the Maldives, the cumulative effects of it are already showing up in the form of high waves that are flooding our fragile islands.

On July 1, sea swells, driven by powerful monsoon winds, swept through island villages across several of our southern atolls, flooding homes, hospitals, schools, and power facilities. On one island, 90% of homes were flooded, and the encroaching saltwater also damaged cultivated soils and natural mangroves. Residents said it was the worst sea-flooding event they had ever seen.

As a former president and current speaker of parliament in the Maldives, I have made saving our precious island state my guiding principle. And I certainly am not alone. The challenge of survival unites not just our people but people from island states around the world. Every day, we experience the injustice of living on the front lines of a problem that we did not create, while high-emitting countries rest easier on higher ground.

Collectively, the world's most climate-vulnerable countries have suffered a 20% hit to our GDP growth over the last two decades, according to a study by the V20 group of finance ministers (representing 55 economies). That is wealth destruction totaling a half-trillion dollars of potential prosperity that we have foregone so that developed countries can continue enjoying their fossil-fuel-based prosperity.

And yet, most people in the rich, high-emitting world are oblivious to their role in this injustice. That is why, as ambassador for the Climate Vulnerable Forum (representing 55 countries and 1.5 billion of the world's poorest people), I am calling for the immediate establishment of a global funding mechanism dedicated to climate-related "loss and damage."

As matters stand, the Maldivian islanders themselves must pay each time a colossal wave sweeps in, because there is no compensation mechanism or even acknowledgement that others have contributed to the damage. But make no mistake, incidents like the flooding this July can no longer be described as natural disasters. They are acts of man, unnatural - rather than natural - disasters.

Even more aggravating is the fact that climate-driven loss and damage is putting us ever deeper into debt. It is no accident that many of the developing countries most affected by debt distress are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Infrastructure that was built with borrowed money is being damaged and eroded by climate-induced events that the rich world caused, and the same conditions are hampering our economic growth, compounding the problem by making it more difficult for us to service our debts.

Hence, the V20 is also looking at emergency debt-restructuring measures that would be linked to investments in nature protection and climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Through large-scale debt-for-climate and debt-for-nature swaps, creditors would get some assurance of repayment and debtors would be assisted in adapting to climate change and pursuing plans for low-carbon growth. This approach is surely better than the current one, which allows for default and chaos of the kind that has befallen Sri Lanka.

Debt relief is more than just a quick fix, because it empowers governments to invest in strategic development priorities, including health, education, digitization, cheap and sustainable energy, and climate-resilient infrastructure. It allows us to see ourselves among the winners of the future. Not only will such investments help us achieve climate resilience and low-carbon growth ("climate prosperity"); they also will drive our transition from developing to middle- and then high-income status.

Many of us in the most climate-vulnerable developing countries have made clear that we don't want carbon-based development for ourselves. That is why we have canceled coal plants and adopted development plans that will take us to net-zero emissions. But justice demands that the historical and current beneficiaries of carbon-based development help us finance our green investments.

As sea levels continue to rise, time is running out. The window for achieving the Paris climate agreement's 1.5° Celsius warming goal is almost closed, and the remaining carbon budget (what we can still emit before overshooting that target) has already been committed many times over. With so many countries having failed to strengthen their decarbonization plans in line with the latest science, even holding global warming to 2°C now looks like a stretch.

When I was president, back in 2009, I staged a media stunt by holding an underwater cabinet meeting, with all my ministers wearing scuba gear to illustrate the dangers of rising sea levels. The point was to be somewhat outrageous. But when I saw the waves sweeping across our southern atolls this July, I found myself wondering if that stunt was actually a preview of the reality that awaits us.

If we fail to meet the Paris goals, the Maldives and other low-lying island states will face a grim future. We will do what we can to survive. But we cannot hope to achieve climate prosperity if we are submerged.

From Project Syndicate

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