Seychelles Sinks As Climate Change Advances

The effects of climate change may feel remote to many. But for small island nations, they are far from abstract. The Seychelles Islands are sinking, and the archipelago has witnessed a devastating coral die-off. Ronald Jumeau, Seychelles ambassador to the U.N., explains how his country is preparing for an uncertain future.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In some places, climate change is not some abstract, far-off concept. The future has arrived. The Seychelles, for example, is sinking. The country consists of about 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Kenya - so beautiful, it's been compared with the Garden of Eden. But its already seen the world's worst coral die-off. Some believe the rising sea levels will put most of the archipelago underwater in 50 to 100 years, and leave the rest of it uninhabitable.

Ronald Jumeau is the Seychelles' ambassador to the United Nations and to the United States. He joins us now from a studio at the U.N. Nice to have you with us today.

Ambassador RONALD JUMEAU (Seychelles Ambassador to U.N. and United States): Nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And can you tell us what kinds of effects you're already seeing as a result of climate change?

Amb. JUMEAU: Well, obviously, we're having the problems of the coral reefs. And coral reefs are central to our economy, central to our culture, central to our way of life. What many people don't realize about coral reefs is not - it's not that they're just beautiful for diving and, as we call them, the rainforests of the ocean. But coral reefs are where many of the deep sea fishes spawn and grow up. It's a nursery for small fish. So if coral reefs die, you are affecting fish in the deep seas, which we use for - which we fish. Also, coral reefs are the first defense - natural defense of violence against ocean waves. When the coral reefs die because of - after they're bleached, they break down, and they allow the waves to hit the shore.

But it's not just that. For example, we are a tourism country. We are a five-star tourism destination. We get twice our population in tourists. Yet, at the moment, I think we are around 30 days supply of water. And that's because the climate is changing. It's affecting the rains. The drought is getting longer. The rainy season is getting shorter. We're getting the same amount of rain in less time, which creates landslides in the hills, and that sort of thing. So it's more than just the coral reefs dying or the seas covering the islands.

I said in - when I was in Copenhagen, I attended a coral reef event. And I was explaining - we don't know which is going to affect us first, which is going to destroy us first. Will it be the die-off the reefs, which would create so much erosion of our land that our islands will be swept away? Or will it be the rise in the sea level? One of the two is going to get us first.

CONAN: We have an email on that last point from a listener named Tom in Fairbanks. He says: Don't let them make the mistake of claiming their current problems are mostly due to sea levels rising. While that is a long-term problem, the immediate problem is that the land of their island is sinking. Sea levels have only risen a few millimeters in the past decades. Their land has subsided much more. Is he right about that?

Amb. JUMEAU: Not so much sinking. For some time now, our islands are being - have been eroded away, islands actually changing shape because of the problem of - on the one hand, the dying reefs. On the other, you have much more serious, much more intense storm events, higher tides, very strong tides which have been really eroding our beaches. And the only defense we've had been able to do - we have a lot of granite. We are the oldest oceanic islands because we have a lot of granite. And we've been dumping granite boulders on our sand beaches to prevent them from being swept away. That's not exactly the reason tourists come to Seychelles. They come to see beaches with white sand, not beaches strewn with boulders.

CONAN: And...

Amb. JUMEAU: So we're - it's the erosion that's getting us now.

CONAN: And it is the coral reefs that are dying off because of an increase in temperature in the sea. That is - well, as I understand it, the worst event there was a spike in temperature back in 1998.

Amb. JUMEAU: Yes, that's right. Up to 90 percent of the reef in certain areas of Seychelles were affected.

CONAN: And it is possible, in some places, when after that spike in temperature that the reefs could recover, but maybe not in isolated areas like the Seychelles.

Amb. JUMEAU: Exactly. Since the great coral bleaching of 1998, we've had two or three more bleaching events. And another fact that many people don't know is that the Indian Ocean is warming up quicker than the Atlantic and the Pacific. One of the reasons is that the Atlantic and the Pacific are opened up to both polar regions. You have the North Pole and the South Pole.

In the case of the Indian Ocean, we only open up to the South Pole. And in the north, you hit against the land mass of India and the Gulf. So the hot water circulates there. So when you get the warming of the oceans, it tends to warm up in the Indian Ocean more than in others.

CONAN: And what do you tell when you go to place like Copenhagen and these various climate conferences, and you're there at the United Nations this week and climate change is one of the big issues that everybody is supposed to be very concerned about. And when you hear the states saying, well, wait a minute. We have problems controlling our carbon, and our economies are important. What do you tell them?

Amb. JUMEAU: Oh, now you've got me going. We have talked until we are blue in the face, or whatever color you can think of we've turned, in the hope of drawing some attention. You know, when I go back home every now and then and people - the people in the street, they ask me, ambassador - or they call minister sometimes because I'm ex-minister of environment. They say: Why won't these people understand? What's wrong with them? What have we done to deserve this?

And the problem is when we say, what have we done to deserve this in terms of climate change, is nothing. We are the smallest countries in the world. We've done nothing. How can you be punished for doing nothing, for not contributing? And on top of that, we are trying to mitigate on our own by changing our energy habits. We're trying to turn to alternative and especially renewable sources of energy.

And we have carried the message everywhere. There is not a single government, not a single head of state, not a single finance minister in the world who does not know the story of the island states. Unfortunately, the climate negotiations have turned into political and financial and economic negotiations. It's no longer about the climate, per se. It's all about what is going to cost this one, or how am I going to convince voters - it's all about voters - which is one of the reasons we are also now reaching out to the public in these countries. We are working with organizations, working with civil society to try and get the man on the street in countries like the USA and others to try and put pressure on their leaders.

Over here, for example, I speak at events where I talk to ordinary people, or people of influence, and trying to tell them, please, put pressure. Because we've put all the pressure we can at the top.

CONAN: We're talking with Ronald Jumeau, the Seychelles ambassador to the United Nations and the United States. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Mr. Ambassador, as you mentioned, it's the island states. It's not just you. There many island nations in the Pacific, the Maldives and other chain of islands in the Indian Ocean. The president there spoke of relocating every citizen in that country due to rising water levels. I wonder, are you, in the Seychelles, thinking of similar ideas?

Amb. JUMEAU: We're not exactly in the same position as Maldives or Tuvalu or Kiribati, which are countries which will disappear entirely. But although we have hills, more than 80 percent of our population live on the coasts. Obviously, our airport is built on land reclaimed from the ocean. Our capitol, most of it, is built on land reclaimed from the ocean, which means when we have sea level rise, we - even if we flee to the hills, we're going to lose all the hotels. We're going to lose the port. We're going to lose the airport. So even if we flee to the hills, what are we going to eat? We're going to become a failed state. We might as well relocate because we'll be sitting on granite mountaintops.

And until someone shows us how to either grow cloven hooves like mountain goats who can climb around, or long arms like apes who can swing from the trees, I mean, we might as well relocate. But it's not just that. It's - what happens to the resources you have when you relocate?

Seychelles is known for tuna. We have the second-largest tuna factory in the world. When we relocate, what happens to the resources you may have on the seabed? What happens in those islands just like Trinidad and Tobago, where they may have oil or water offshore? When you relocate and you lose your country, what happens? What's your status in the country you relocate to? Who are you? Do you have a government there? Government of what? There hasn't been a government of refugees before. So it's raising so much complex country questions about international law. And what I'm saying, look, it's much easier to help us stay where we are.

CONAN: There is not just that question, but the question that if it happens in the Maldives and the Seychelles in the next 50 to 100 years, well, it's not far off before it happens to New York or Hong Kong.

Amb. JUMEAU: Exactly. You know, I was saying earlier that I speak to different groups. Outside of my job as an ambassador here, I once spent an evening talking to people from the islands off the Northeastern Coast of the United States. And as I was talking - at least they understood a little of what I was saying. And they asked: What can we do? And I said, look, in your case, don't ask your leaders to save the small island states. Call your congressman, call your senator and ask him: What are you doing to save my island off the Northeast Coast? You have islands all around the United States. You have Hawaii. You have a lot of island territories, Guam and all that. They should be advocating to save their own islands.

Ask an American - because Americans, you know, their lives are run by the domestic politics. So ask them: What are you doing to save my island, because when you save your island, you also save all the other islands. And the bottom line that we are using in the negotiations is if you save the islands of the world, irrespective whether they're island states or the islands off the coast of the USA, if you save the islands of the world, you save everybody. You save New York. You save London. You save all the great ports. You save Bangladesh. So that's the bottom line. You save us, you save everybody else.

CONAN: Ambassador Jumeau, thank you very much for your time today.

Amb. JUMEAU: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.

CONAN: Ambassador Ronald Jumeau is the Seychelles ambassador to the United Nations, and to the United States, as well. He joined us from a studio at the United Nations.

Tomorrow: Iran, North Korea, the fragile Middle East peace process and a new approach on U.S. foreign aid, among the issues President Obama addresses during speeches at the General Assembly this week. How is his message being received?

Join us for that discussion tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in New York.

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