Will we see paradise lost for want of action by our leaders?

Published on 5 Nov 2009

Milo has a message for world leaders but no means of delivering it.

Like a lot of the rest of the world's poorest people, he is among the first to suffer from man-made climate change, even though Milo himself has no carbon footprint to speak of.

We bumped into him last month at Rendezvous Point, one of the 200 islets that comprise Turneffe Atoll off the coast of Belize. It's not far from Ambergris Caye, celebrated by the Madonna song La Isla Bonita (The Beautiful Island). Milo is a lean, bony little man of uncertain age with skin like polished mahogany and a big smile full of crooked teeth. The only other inhabitant of Rendezvous Point is Cricket, Milo's brother. They sell and live on fish that breed among the mangroves along the shore and pink-shelled conch that carpet the sea floor in the turquoise lagoon. These are plentiful enough for the brothers to select the biggest and leave the smaller ones to grow.

This is life in the raw. Recently, a saltwater crocodile snatched Milo's dog but his biggest fear is that, in a few years, rising sea levels will kill the atoll's coral reef and rob him of his home and livelihood. Already the chart is peppered with "drowned" islands.

The Maldives government's recent "underwater cabinet meeting" made the point well. If Copenhagen turns out to be more about posturing than politics, such low-lying coastal and island communities will be sunk, literally. Another impact of climate change is the hurricanes that are increasing in both frequency and ferocity. The worst hurricane season on record in the Carib bean was 2005, largely because the waters there reached their hottest temperature ever - 30C (86F). The shattered forest on Rendezvous Point bears silent witness, though the island was saved from greater devastation by its protective fringe of mangroves.

Mangroves are like the rainforests of the shore. They've been described as "botanical amphibians, with one foot in the sea and the other on land". They cope with salt levels that would kill other plants and their complex root systems enable them to survive in intertidal zones. (Some even have snorkel-like roots that stick out of the mud to help them breathe.)

In climate terms, mangroves represent a triple bonus. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, where mangroves were intact they acted as natural breakwaters, dissipating the destructive power of the sea. They are also guardians of biodiversity. Birds roost in their canopy, shellfish cling to their roots, fish breed and snakes and crocodiles hunt there.

In Belize, they are a haven for the gentle but highly endangered manatee. But the most important thing about mangroves for climatologists is their extraordinary capacity for absorbing carbon dioxide, sequestering carbon into mud sediments. Yet, while mangroves once covered an estimated 32 million hectares, less than half that area survives today. In Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Ecuador and Brazil, they are being ripped out to make way for shrimp farms to feed the rich. In the Caribbean, they are cleared to build resorts and golf courses.

Some communities and countries - notably Bangladesh and Eritrea - have realised belatedly the value of mangroves and are trying to restore them. The developed world should help. If we are prepared to support Brazil to halt illegal logging in the Amazon basin, there is an even more compelling case for restoring mangroves, because they have the highest net productivity of carbon of any natural ecosystem and because the tropical countries where they grow are among the world's poorest and most vulnerable to climate change.

The world's foremost expert on mangroves, Prof Jim Hong Ong of Malaysia, says: "If Indonesians could trade the carbon storage potential of their mangroves as a commodity, that would create a great incentive to stop bulldozing them for shrimp ponds or chipping them to produce rayon."

This begs several questions. According to Dr Richard Dixon, head of WWF Scotland, mangroves are something of a grey area in the climate talks because it isn't clear whether they fall within the technical definition of a forest in the Kyoto protocol, which stipulates the crown must be at least two metres from "the ground".

Even if they are included in Redd (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries), this section of the Copenhagen accord is the subject of huge disagreement about both funding and whether palm oil plantations, that often drive deforestation, should be included.

Yet without an agreement on halting deforestation, many policy-makers consider the goal of limiting global warming to 2C as pie in the sky. Anything more represents a real threat to human society. Yesterday, developing countries told climate change negotiators that unless the west agrees to carbon emission cuts of at least 40% by 2020, they risk "total destruction". The US is talking about what amounts to 7% cuts based on 1990 levels.

Disappointingly, the EU, which could have offered real leadership in Copenhagen, last week agreed a pot of money for supporting developing countries to adapt to a low-carbon economy, without saying who would pay what. The US Senate has parked the whole issue while it deals with health reform. Can the G20 finance ministers convening in St Andrews tomorrow do any better?

Meanwhile, commentators such as Clive James, who on Radio 4 recently seemed to equate the combined wisdom of 95% of climate scientists with a few right-wing bloggers and oil companies' tame scientists, feed the thriving industry of climate change denial.

One day these people will be compared with those who denied a link between cancer and smoking, but there is a real danger that a collective failure of nerve will result in a meaningless Copenhagen agreement that national leaders then attempt to sell as a good one. By the time they have another go at it in a decade, the case for action may be more compelling but it will be harder to halt runaway climate change.

That brings us back to Milo and his mangroves in the fragile paradise he calls home. As he had nowhere to spend our dollars, we were reduced to bartering for our supper. He asked for cigarettes and shoes. He ended up with a surplus pair of candy-pink plastic Crocs and half a bottle of rum. I'm left with the improbable memory of a grinning Milo waving us off in his pink shoes, beside a pile of empty pink conch shells, against a scarlet sunset. We enjoyed fried conch and chips for supper. It was a fair deal. If he could address the delegates due to convene in Copenhagen next month, that is all he would ask of them.